A person who suffers personal injuries due to someone else’s negligence or other wrongful conduct may be entitled to monetary damages.
Compensatory damages include economic and non-economic damages. Courts award these types of damages to compensate an injured person for the harm they have suffered because of someone else’s actions.
Compensatory damages include medical and hospital expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. However, in some cases, courts will impose further sanctions for particularly bad acts.
What Are Punitive Damages?
California courts punish certain types of behavior more harshly and will issue additional punishments against wrongdoers who exhibit these types of behavior. Unlike compensatory damages, courts award punitive damages to punish wrongdoers for their bad acts and discourage bad behavior.
California punitive damages do not have any cap or maximum amount that may be awarded, meaning that punitive damages awards can be substantial.
A court will consider numerous factors when issuing punitive damages, including:
- The extent of the victim’s injuries,
- The severity of the defendant’s behavior,
- The defendant’s wealth, and
- Other contributing circumstantial factors.
Punitive damages in California can also be awarded when a person intentionally consumes alcohol or takes drugs, knowing they will later drive a car while intoxicated. This type of behavior, according to the California courts, qualifies as malice.
How Does a Court Decide to Award Punitive Damages?
The plaintiff must meet a high burden of proof and demonstrate the defendant’s conduct by “clear and convincing evidence.” The plaintiff must provide strong evidence to meet this standard.
Courts are generally reluctant to award punitive damages and will do so only in extreme circumstances supported by strong evidence.
Under California Civil Code 3294, courts may award punitive damages when a plaintiff proves that a defendant is guilty of oppression, malice, or fraud. If the plaintiff successfully proves any of the listed types of conduct, a court may award punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.
The California Civil Code defines each of the types of conduct in more detail.
Oppression occurs when a person subjects someone else to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights or safety.
A person acts with malice when he or she intentionally causes injury to another person or when that person participates in despicable conduct with a willful and conscious disregard for the safety and rights of others.
Fraud means an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of an important fact with the intent to deprive another person of their rights or cause them injury.
How Does a Jury Decide the Amount of a Damages Award?
Courts will decide whether punitive damages are warranted in a given case. But a jury must decide the amount of the damages award.
The United States Supreme Court has issued guidance for determining whether the amount of punitive damages is appropriate.
Whether a punitive damages award is excessive depends on:
- The severity and degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct;
- The difference between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and
- The difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the size of penalties in similar cases.
Although California does not have a strict standard for calculating punitive damages, the amount should be reasonably related to the injury. The punitive damages award is limited to between three and nine times the size of the actual or compensatory damages award.
For example, a plaintiff receives $100,000 in compensatory damages for an auto accident. The jury determines that the defendant’s conduct constituted malicious conduct in willful disregard for the safety of others.
The jury then decides, based on the above guidelines, that the plaintiff is entitled to $600,000 in punitive damages. The court would assess whether this amount was reasonably related to the injuries and the defendant’s conduct.
The punitive damages award is five times the compensatory damages amount, well within the acceptable range. The plaintiff’s total damages award would be $700,000.
Should I Hire an Attorney?
Proving punitive damages can be very difficult, but a punitive damages award can substantially increase the size of your compensation.
An experienced personal injury attorney knows how to prove punitive damages and will assess your case to determine if punitive damages may apply.