What are Punitive Damages?

In a personal injury case in California, not only may plaintiffs (injured party) be entitled to “compensatory damages” such as medical expenses, lost income, as well as pain and suffering, but they can also be given “punitive damages.” These exemplary damages are requested by the plaintiff and specifically meant to punish the defendant for their “particularly egregious” actions and deter others from behaving or conducting themselves in the same manner after the conclusion of the case. 

According to California Civil Code 3294(c), punitive damages will be awarded if the defendant acted in one of the following ways: 

  • Malice – Acting in an intentional way to harm someone or with willful and conscious disregard for another person’s safety. 

  • Oppression – The despicable actions subject someone else to cruel and unjust hardship without any regard to their rights. 

  • Fraud – Intentionally deceiving or misrepresenting a fact to deprive someone else of their legal rights or otherwise cause injury. 

In other words, the plaintiff must prove – through “clear and convincing evidence” – that the defendant’s actions approximated to malice, oppression, or fraud. Clear and convincing evidence is a higher legal threshold to fulfill compared to a “preponderance of the evidence,” so the plaintiff must prove one of the three elements with a high degree of probability. 

Keep in mind, there is no formula to determine the amount of punitive damages in California. However, the jury will consider the egregiousness, maliciousness or extreme recklessness of the defendant’s conduct, the amount of punitive damages that would be reasonable for the plaintiff’s injury, and the amount that will punish the defendant (while considering his/her financial situation) and prevent future wrongful conduct. 

Unlike some states, California has no cap on punitive damages in personal injury cases. Yet, the 14th Amendment – specifically the Due Process Clause – prohibits the courts from imposing grossly excessive punishments, which could result in punitive damages worth millions of dollars to be reduced to only a few hundreds of thousands of dollars (but exceedingly more than the compensatory damages). 

If you were injured in an accident caused by negligence in Pasadena or the surrounding area, contact Tedford & Associates today at (626) 325-0142 for a free initial consultation. Get more than 38 years of trial-tested experience on your side! 


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