Punitive Damages in California Personal Injury Lawsuits

In California personal injury, the plaintiff may be entitled to recover both economic and noneconomic damages (such as pain and suffering, loss of companionship, etc.), and under a limited set of circumstances, may even be entitled to sue for punitive damages.

For a broad overview of personal injury damages in California, please read our article here.

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages are not meant to be compensatory, but rather, are meant to punish the defendant for particularly egregious actions. In other words, punitive damages are not intended to help the plaintiff recover for their injuries – they are intended to discourage certain negative behaviors in society at-large, as a matter of public policy.

In California personal injury actions, punitive damages are rarely available, and even then, are available only in certain limited circumstances.

Having access to punitive damages can be a legitimate game-changer for the plaintiff and their case. Though punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff, if the plaintiff successfully sues for punitive damages, their total damages award may shoot up significantly. The punitive damages amount can range from three times to nine times the compensatory damages amount.

For example, suppose that in a motor vehicle accident case, the plaintiff sues the defendant for their injuries. Plaintiff’s economic and noneconomic damages total $100,000. Importantly, however, the defendant was driving drunk at the time of the accident. Further, the defendant’s disregard for the safety of others is determined to be equivalent to malice. As such, the plaintiff may sue for punitive damages. Depending on the facts, the jury may award the plaintiff an additional $300,000 to $900,000 in punitive damages, on top of the economic and noneconomic damages awards.

Punitive damages are rarely awarded in personal injury cases in California, but, depending on the circumstances, you may have be able to sue for punitive damages.

Accessing Punitive Damages

The statute that governs tortious punitive damages in California is Civil Code section 3294(a), which states as follows: "In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual [compensatory] damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant."

To clarify, the plaintiff must satisfy a high standard of proof: the clear and convincing evidence standard. The normal standard of proof requires only that the evidence shows that something is more likely than not. Clear and convincing evidence requires that the evidence shows a high probability of something being true.

To be awarded punitive damages, a California plaintiff must therefore prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice. The evidence must prove that the defendant guilt as to oppression, fraud, or malice has a high probability of being true.

Finally, it is worth noting that punitive damages are not awarded without actual damages. For example, suppose that there is a minor rear-end motor vehicle accident, and the defendant acted with incredible intentional malice in striking the plaintiff’s vehicle from the rear. If the plaintiff was not harmed, however, and if there are no actual damages, then no punitive damages will be awarded either.

So, what exactly does oppression, fraud, and malice mean when it comes to punitive damages?

Under section 3294(c), the statute clarifies each of these terms.

- Oppression is conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in willful and conscious disregard of their rights.

- Fraud is intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact with the intention to deprive another person of their property or legal rights, thus causing the plaintiff’s injuries.

- Malice is conduct intended to cause the plaintiff injury or conduct that is carried out with a willful and conscious disregard of other people’s rights and/or safety.

Generally speaking, the simplest way to access punitive damages in a California personal injury case is when the defendant has committed an intentional tort against the plaintiff.

Intentional acts against the plaintiff by the defendant, such as assault and battery, for example, or sexual harassment, or other such acts may qualify depending on the circumstances surrounding said acts.

Alternatively, motor vehicle accident claims involving a defendant that was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol may also entitle the plaintiff to punitive damages.

As per the court’s judgment in Taylor v. Superior Court of Los Angeles (1979), a plaintiff may be entitled to punitive damages recovery when the defendant voluntarily intoxicates themselves with drugs or alcohol knowing beforehand that they will be driving later. Though the defendant need not have intended to cause an automobile accident, the intention to consume drugs or alcohol and thus become intoxicated, while intending also to later operate a vehicle, demonstrates malice. Punitive damages may therefore be available against the driver in such circumstances.

As many accidents are caused by intoxicated drivers (not just illicit drugs, or alcohol, but also by negligent drivers who have taken medication that impairs their ability to safely drive), the availability of punitive damages liability in such cases may help boost the value of a significant number of motor vehicle accident claims. If you have been in a motor vehicle accident, it behooves you to consult with a skilled personal injury attorney who will assess the possibility of punitive damages recovery in your case.

Calculating Punitive Damages

If the plaintiff successfully recovers punitive damages, then the jury will determine the punitive damages award. The jury must decide on a punitive damages award that has a reasonable relation to the injury. This is a subjective matter, to a degree, but the law limits the ratio of punitive damages to nine times the actual damages. Of course, in practice it is quite rare for punitive damages to be awarded at such a high ratio.

Wealth is a consideration in determining what constitutes a reasonable punitive damages award. If the defendant is wealthy, then the jury may inform their punitive damages award based on this wealth assessment. Why does the defendant’s wealth matter? Remember, punitive damages is meant as a punishment inflicted on the defendant so as to discourage such behavior. If a defendant is inflicted with low punitive damages relative to their wealth, then the punitive damages will not have the same effect in terms of discouraging similar future behavior. This has special importance with regard to corporate defendants.

This wealth consideration is also why it is not uncommon to hear about lawsuits against businesses where the plaintiff wins a massive damages recovery. A wealthy corporate entity must be hit with a significant punitive damages award in order to seriously discourage similar future behavior. Were the punitive damages award less significant, then the business might continue as before.

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For a free consultation with an experienced, highly successful personal injury attorney, call the Law Offices of Brian J. O’Grady at (650) 318-6131 to set up your appointment today.