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Punitive Damages in California Personal Injury Lawsuits

In the state of California, personal injury plaintiffs may be compensated for a variety of damages suffered, including but not limited to pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses, the increased cost of living associated with a disability, funeral expenses, loss of consortium, property loss, and wage loss. Though some of these damage awards are meant to compensate for monetary losses, and some are meant to compensate for non-monetary losses, they are all compensatory in nature – to the degree possible, they are meant to help counterbalance the fact that the plaintiff suffered various injuries and losses.

If you’re interested, we have an introduction to damages in personal injury lawsuits here.

Though much less common than compensatory damages, punitive damages may be available in a subset of personal injury cases. Punitive damages operate quite differently from compensatory damages. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are not actually awarded to restore the plaintiff financially following an injury (though punitive damages do help in that regard). Instead, punitive damages are awarded to punish the defendant for their actions and to discourage such behavior from happening in the future. To this end, punitive damages are intended to be quite severe.

Punitive damages range from 3-to-9 times the compensatory damages award, which can lead to extravagant damages totals in cases where punitive damages apply. Many personal injury cases that become known in popular culture for large damage awards actually involve a punitive damages component.

To understand the effect of punitive damages on a moderate damages total, consider the following. Suppose that a plaintiff sues a manufacturer for their injury caused by defendant’s manufacturing defect. The defendant engaged in gross negligence by failing to implement a proper inspection system at the factory. As such, the products were not vetted for such defects. The plaintiff therefore succeeds in assessing punitive damages against the defendant. If the compensatory damages total is only $50,000, the plaintiff may be awarded as much as $450,000 in punitive damages, thus leading to a $500,000 total damages award.

It can be quite difficult for a plaintiff to secure punitive damages, especially in cases involving personal injury (negligence). Despite this difficulty, however, there are avenues through which a personal injury plaintiff in California can recover punitive damages, if circumstances allow.

Understanding Punitive Damages Recovery

In the state of California, Civil Code section 3294(a) controls punitive damages liability involving tortious conduct (such as negligence causing personal injury), though California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) 3947 is informative on the subject as well.

Under both Civil Code section 3294(a) and CACI 3947, punitive damages may be awarded if the plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant engaged in their harmful conduct with malice, oppression, or fraud.

Proving malice, oppression, or fraud can be particularly difficult, if not impossible, in some cases, such as a standard motor vehicle accident (negligence) case. On the other hand, if the case involves inspection, design, failure to warn, or other such conduct (in the realm of product liability), punitive damages liability tends to be easier to attach.

Interestingly, punitive damages may be available in motor vehicle accident cases involving an intoxicated defendant-driver.

So, how does a plaintiff prove that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud?

The plaintiff must show that the malice, oppression, or fraud was conduct of the defendant, or of one or more officers, directors, or agents who acted on behalf of the defendant.

Malice will be found if the defendant acted with the intent to cause injury, or if the defendant’s actions were “despicable” and conducted with a willful disregard for the rights and safety of others. A defendant will be found to have acted with willful disregard if he or she is aware of the probable dangerous consequences of their conduct, but then deliberately and knowingly fails to avoid said consequences.

Despicable conduct is conduct that reasonable people would find vile, base, or contemptible.

Oppression will be found if the defendant engages in despicable conduct, subjecting the plaintiff to cruel and unjust hardships. The defendant knowingly disregards the plaintiff’s rights here.

Fraud will be found if the defendant knowingly and willfully misrepresents or conceals a material fact for the purposes of harming the plaintiff.

Unfortunately, further barriers stand in the way of punitive damages being assessed against a defendant. The standard of proof for plaintiffs seeking punitive damages is that the “clear and convincing” standard, which is a stricter standard of proof than the default civil standard, which requires only that the plaintiff provide evidence showing that it is more likely true than not true (alternatively, a 51% likelihood of being true). The clear and convincing standard, on the other hand, requires that the plaintiff provide evidence that has a high probability of being true.

It may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that punitive damages are not available unless there are actual, compensatory damages. Thus, even though a defendant may have acted maliciously, oppressively, or fraudulently, it may not expose them to punitive damages liability – or any liability, in fact – if the plaintiff has not suffered any actual harm. If the plaintiff has not suffered actual harm, then the plaintiff will not be entitled to compensatory damages, and thus, will not be able to assess punitive damages against the defendant either.

To reiterate, punitive damages are fairly difficult to assess against defendants in personal injury cases in California, as the circumstances that qualify for punitive damages assessment are somewhat rare. Generally, it is easier to prove malice, oppression, or fraud in personal injury cases involving willful or intentional conduct.

For example, if a defendant commits an assault and battery against a plaintiff, then, depending on the circumstances, the plaintiff may be able to assess punitive damages against the defendant. Circumstantial details strongly determine whether punitive damages are available. Suppose the defendant punched the plaintiff in the face outside of a shop. It is more likely for the plaintiff to be able to assess punitive damages against the defendant if the plaintiff did nothing to antagonize the defendant. On the other hand, if the plaintiff was insulting the defendant, the punch may not be seen as “despicable conduct”.

How Is the Amount of Punitive Damages Determined?

There is no fixed standard for determining the correct amount (though the legal limit is nine times the compensatory damages amount).

There are, however, several factors that a judge or jury must take into consideration when determining the right punitive damages award for a given case. The following is a non-exhaustive list.

  1. The wealth of the defendant.
    A wealthier defendant may be punished to a greater degree. This is especially applicable to entity defendants, such as wealthy corporate businesses. Keep in mind that punitive damages are intended to serve as a deterrent of behavior. The punitive damages award must therefore proportionately affect the defendant so as to have a deterrent-effect. In the case of a wealthy defendant, the award must therefore be suitably high.

  2. How wrong, or despicable, the defendant’s actions were.
    For example, if a manufacturer of mobile phones fails to properly implement safety inspections of a phone part that has the potential to cause minor injury to users, it is likely to be considered less “wrong” or “despicable” than if a manufacturer of pharmaceutical products failed to properly implement a safety protocol.

  3. Whether the punitive damages amount bears a reasonable relation to the actual harm caused to the plaintiff.
    The punitive damages amount should not be so wildly out of proportion with the actual harm caused to the plaintiff. If a plaintiff suffered only minor injuries, a punitive damages amount of nine times the compensatory damages amount (that exposes the defendant to over $100,000 of liability on a $10,000 case, for example), would likely not be considered to bear a reasonable relation to the actual harm caused.