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What Are Punitive Damages in California?

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When another person causes an accident or injury, California tort law holds the person financially responsible for the damages they cause. In addition to compensatory damages, the injured party might receive punitive damages. However, the injured party must prove that the at-fault party acted with oppression, fraud, or malice.

Even though the award for punitive damages is against the party who caused the injury, the money for punitive damages is paid to the injured party. Therefore, an accident victim could receive money for their damages and money awarded to punish the defendant’s conduct. 

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How Are Punitive Damages Different From Other Types of Damages?

How Are Punitive Damages Different From Other Types of Damages?

Most damages compensate the injured part for damages or harm they sustained because of the accident or injury. These damages are called compensatory damages. The financial award compensates the injured party for financial losses, pain, and suffering.

Economic and non-economic damages include:

In contrast, punitive damages do not compensate the injured party for harm, monetary losses, or injuries. Instead, jurors award punitive damages to “punish” the at-fault party for their conduct. The damages also deter other people from committing the same acts. 

What Type of Conduct Is Necessary for Punitive Damages?

California Civil Code §3294 defines the conduct that justifies an award for punitive damages. The statute allows for punitive damages when the defendant’s conduct amounts to:

  • Oppression – The conduct causes a person to suffer an unjust and cruel hardship with a conscious disregard for the other person’s rights
  • Malice – The at-fault party intends to injure the other person, or the conduct is despicable and demonstrates a conscious and willful disregard for the safety and rights of others. 
  • Fraud – Intentional concealment, misrepresentation, or deceit of a material fact with the intent of causing injury or depriving someone of their legal rights or property. 

The injured party has the burden of proving the at-fault party’s conduct met one or more of the above requirements. The statute requires clear and convincing evidence that the party acted with malice, fraud, or deceit. 

In other words, the evidence proves there is a very high degree of probability that the allegations are true. The level of proof is slightly higher than by a preponderance of the evidence, which is used to prove allegations for economic and non-economic damages. A preponderance of the evidence means there is more than a 50% chance that the defendant caused the person’s injuries. 

How Much Are Punitive Damages Worth in a Personal Injury Case?

California has no set amount or standard formula for calculating punitive damages. Instead, the jurors evaluate the facts of the case to determine how much to award for punitive damages. Factors the jurors might consider include, but are not limited to:

  • How despicable the defendant’s behavior was that led to the plaintiff’s injury
  • The level of harm caused by the defendant’s conduct 
  • Whether the amount of punitive damages will adequately punish the defendant for wrongdoing
  • Whether the amount of punitive damages is sufficient to discourage the defendant and others from engaging in similar conduct
  • The defendant’s financial condition and net worth

California does not place a cap on the amount of punitive damages a jury can award in a personal injury case. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects defendants from arbitrary and grossly excessive punishments. Therefore, an award for punitive damages must be reasonable. 

Generally, most awards for punitive damages do not exceed nine times the amount of compensatory damages. The worse the defendant’s behavior, the higher the multiplier. In extremely egregious cases, the court could grant an award for more than nine times the amount of compensatory damages. 

What Is the Deadline for Recovering Punitive Damages for a Personal Injury Claim in California?

A demand for punitive damages is included in a personal injury lawsuit. Punitive damages can be awarded in all types of personal injury cases. Therefore, the underlying case determines the statute of limitations

The California statute for most personal injury lawsuits is two years from the injury date. However, there are exceptions, so it is always best to talk with a lawyer as soon as possible after an injury. 

Call for a Free Consultation With Our Los Angeles Personal Injury Lawyers

Our legal team pursues all types of damages you are entitled to receive for a personal injury claim. Contact our law firm to schedule a free case evaluation with an experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney at (855) 599-2987M&Y Personal Injury Lawyers will work to get you the maximum amount possible for your personal injury case.