Punitive damages are available in California personal injury cases when the defendant’s behavior is particularly egregious. Unlike compensatory damages, which seek to compensate the plaintiff for their losses, punitive damages punish the defendant. The legal system’s goal with levying punitive damages as additional compensation in a slip and fall case is to deter them from engaging in similar behavior again. This is done by significantly increasing the amount of damages that the defendant must pay—which are above and beyond the compensatory damages.
When May Punitive Damages be Applied?
- 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 damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.
- Malice means conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.
- Oppression means despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.
- Fraud means an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact known to the defendant with the intention on the part of the defendant of thereby depriving a person of property or legal rights or otherwise causing injury.
How Can I Tell Whether or Not I May Seek Punitive Damages?
The defendant’s behavior must rise above the simple negligence present in most personal injury lawsuits, such as a routine slip and fall case. One example of the difference between a case that could include only compensatory damages and a case that could include compensatory damages and punitive damages in a wrongful death case can be illustrated with automobile accidents.
In Accident A, the defendant was driving 77 miles per hour in a 65 miles per hour zone on the highway and caused an accident that killed the other driver. In Accident B, the defendant was severely intoxicated and drove 110 miles per hour in that same 65 miles per hour zone during a driving rainstorm and caused an accident that killed the other driver. The defendant in Accident A would only face compensatory damages. However, the defendant in Accident B would face the very real possibility of being responsible for a significant amount of punitive damages– due to their egregious behavior.
What is Clear and Convincing Evidence?
Notably, the burden of proof regarding compensatory damages in personal injury cases is a preponderance of the evidence. It means that it is more likely (a 51 percent probability is sufficient) that the defendant is liable. However, clear and convincing evidence is required when it comes to making a case for punitive damages. Jurors are instructed that this burden is met when it is highly probable that a particular fact is true. While this burden can certainly be met, it is more challenging to meet than the burden of proof associated with compensatory damages.
Factors Considered When Calculating the Amount of Punitive Damages to Be Awarded
When it comes to determining the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded, California Civil Jury Instructions 3940 and 3947 discuss three factors that will be taken into consideration:
- How reprehensible was the defendant’s conduct?
- Whether or not a reasonable relationship exists between the amount of punitive damages and the harm suffered by the plaintiff
- Taking into account the defendant’s finances, the amount that would punish them and deter this conduct in the future
Make the Right Hire
Building a case for punitive damages can be complex, and that is one reason why our attorneys at Salamati Law strongly recommend that you hire an experienced Los Angeles personal injury lawyer to represent you. For more than 25 years, we have stood up for justice on behalf of our clients. Our Los Angeles personal injury lawyers have secured excellent outcomes for people that need it most while enduring a challenging period of their lives.
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If you have questions about punitive damages in a California personal injury case, call Salamati Law today to book your free consultation with one of our Los Angeles personal injury lawyers. We do not charge anything unless you win your case.