In a personal injury case, punitive damages are any additional compensation payments paid by the defendant to the plaintiff. Here is how to get punitive damages in California personal injury cases.

Punitive damages are charged to the defendant of the personal injury case with the intention to punish them for malicious and/or reckless behavior. These damages can be charged in addition to any economic and non-economic damages found at the time that the personal injury case is settled. However, punitive damages are only authorized under strict guidelines set by California law.

Related: Compensatory vs Punitive Damages in California

When Can an Individual Obtain Punitive Damages?

California Civil Code 3294 lays out the qualifications a personal injury case must meet for the plaintiff to be granted punitive damages. In order to qualify for punitive damages, the plaintiff must be able to prove to the court with clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has either acted in oppression, fraud, or malice. Here is how California law defines each type of maltreatment listed in their qualification for punitive damages:

1. Oppression
Oppression as defined by the civil code is any despicable hardship that was carried on by the defendant with an intentional and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.
2. Fraud
Fraud is defined by California law as the 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 otherwise causing injury.
3. Malice
Malice is defined by state law as the conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.

Additionally, a plaintiff must be able to provide clear and convincing evidence to the court that the actions of the defendant demonstrate one or more of the above behaviors. The court defines clear and convincing evidence as “evidence that is highly and substantially more than likely to be true” as ruled in Colorado v. New Mexico 467 U.S. 310 (1984).

How Are Punitive Damages Calculated?

Although there is no set formula on how a jury will calculate punitive damages in court, here is a list of general questions a jury may ask to better determine if punitive damages should be awarded.

  • How reprehensible was the defendant’s conduct?
  • Did the defendant cause physical harm?
  • Did the defendant disregard the safety and health of others?
  • Did the defendant know about the victim’s financial vulnerabilities and take advantage of that knowledge?
  • Was the defendant’s conduct part of a pattern or practice?
  • Did the defendant act with trickery or deceit?
  • What award is necessary to punish the defendant and discourage future wrongful conduct?
  • Is there a reasonable relationship between the degree of the defendant’s wrongful conduct and an appropriate award of punitive damages?

Answering these questions is very helpful to a jury trying to decide whether punitive damages should be granted, and it is crucial to keep these in mind for any party involved in the case trying to determine if punitive damages will be awarded.

Are There Any Limits on Punitive Damages?

After the finding that the defendant has acted in either oppression, fraud, or malice, the calculation of damages must be determined.

California does not have a limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in a personal injury lawsuit. However, the Fourteenth Amendment does provide some restrictions on the boundaries of punitive damages. The amendment prohibits “grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments”. Therefore when punitive damages are determined by the court, they must fall within this federal limit.

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