Can I Recover Punitive Damages in a California Personal Injury Case?

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How are Punitive Damages Awarded in California Personal Injury Cases?

How are Punitive Damages Awarded in California Personal Injury Cases?

Sep 13, 2022

In personal injury law cases, settlements awarded to victims include damages that typically fall under one of two categories – compensatory and punitive. A personal injury lawsuit is meant to help the victim recover any losses endured through the accident – whether involving a dog bite, car crash, slip and fall, or other type of claim.

Can I Recover Punitive Damages in a California Personal Injury Case?

When your attorney issues a demand letter to the at-fault party who is liable for harming you, the overall dollar amount requested will likely be broken down according to specific damages – such as pain and suffering, emotional trauma, hospital or medical care costs, loss of earning capacity, etc. Those are the types of damages that fall under the ‘compensatory’ category, and they are intended to provide justice to the injured victim after an accident.

Punitive damages, however, are in a separate class. Moreover, these damages are actually designed to prevent others from being harmed by the same (or similar) actions which caused your accident. When awarded, punitive damages can lead to substantial settlement amounts. That said, punitive damages can be quite difficult to prove – especially without the skill and experience of a top-rated personal injury lawyer.

Let’s review the difference between punitive and compensatory damages, discuss how you may be able to recover punitive damages for your car accident or personal injury case, and offer information on how to file your claim for maximum compensation with Dordulian Law Group.

What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are in a separate class and are awarded when clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that the person or entity who is responsible for causing your injuries acted with either malice, oppression, or fraud.

Punitive damages, although rare, are most commonly awarded in cases where intentional harm or extreme recklessness was evident. As punitive damages often equate to significant sums of money, they are imposed in an effort to punish the defendant or wrongdoer, but also to deter such dangerous behavior from ever occurring again in the future.

While compensatory damages are based on the plaintiff’s losses – such as medical bills, lost wages, diminished ability to earn a future wage, etc. – punitive damages are actually based on the wanton disregard for others or the deplorable conduct shown by the defendant through his or her actions.

When punitive damages are granted, they are awarded in addition to any compensatory damages that may have been part of a jury verdict.

When Can I Be Awarded Punitive Damages as a Personal Injury Victim?

Under California Civil Code 3294, a jury in a courtroom trial is able to award punitive damages for personal injury cases. For punitive damages to be recovered, it must be proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice. In addition to the actual ‘compensatory’ damages, the plaintiff may “recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”

Under California Civil Code 3294, the following definitions apply:

  1. 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.
  2. Oppression” means despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.
  3. 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.

What is ‘Clear and Convincing Evidence’ for Punitive Damages?

In California, your personal injury attorney needs to be able to prove compensatory damages based on “a preponderance of evidence.” In other words, your lawyer must demonstrate through the evidence presented that it is “more likely than not” that the elements of your claim are true.

So, for example, if you are claiming $1 million in pain and suffering for a serious car accident that left you with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the impact that injury will have on your overall quality of life will need to be shown in relation to a dollar amount. Or, when claiming $500,000 in medical bills, the expenses incurred as a result of the accident will need to be demonstrated through hard evidence, such as medical records, billing statements, etc.

With punitive damages, however, your attorney must prove through “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s actions constitute malice, oppression, or fraud. Although California does not explicitly define the term “clear and convincing evidence,” it is understood to represent a higher burden of proof when compared with a “preponderance of the evidence.”

In other words, to successfully secure punitive damages on your behalf, your attorney will need to prove that malice, fraud, and/or oppression occurred with a “high degree of probability.”

Can I Ask for a Specific Amount When Pursuing Punitive Damages?

Either the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney must specifically request an award of punitive damages. However, specifying an exact amount for punitive (also referred to as exemplary) damages is not part of the process. Once a request for punitive damages has been made, the jury will then determine if they should be awarded (and what that total amount should be).

That said, it is not uncommon for punitive and compensatory damages to be determined in the same trial proceeding.

How are California Punitive Damages Calculated?

No set standard or formula is applied when determining the amount of punitive damages to be awarded in a California personal injury case – including for car accidents, premises liability incidents, slip and falls, and more.

When a jury determines how much to award in punitive damages, the following considerations are often part of the decision making process:

  • The degree or extent of the wrongdoers wicked actions or reprehensible conduct
  • Whether a correlation exists between the amount of punitive damages potentially awarded and the overall harm endured by the plaintiff (the long-term impact on the victim)
  • Whether the amount of punitive damages awarded will serve as a deterrent for the wrongdoer – discouraging him or her from engaging in future misconduct

What is the Maximum Cap on California Punitive Damages?

While some states set a limit or cap on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in personal injury cases, California does not. Accordingly, there is no limit on the amount of punitive damages a jury may award to an injured victim in the Golden State.

However, it should be noted that the Due Process Clause established in the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the imposition of “grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments” such as those handed down by juries through punitive damages awards.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that punitive damages ought to bear a “reasonable relationship” to any compensatory damages awarded to a plaintiff. In other words, if a plaintiff receives $2 million for car accident compensatory damages such as medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering, the jury would be derelict in its duty if they awarded $50 million for punitive damages.

File Your Personal Injury Claim for Financial Compensation Today

If you were injured by someone else’s negligence (or were at least not 100% liable for the incident) within the past two years, you may be eligible to bring a civil lawsuit and recover a cash settlement for your losses.

Dordulian Law Group (DLG) is a top-rated, premier California personal injury firm representing clients from Los Angeles to San Diego to San Francisco. We pursue punitive damages on behalf of clients in all relevant cases, and will fight to ensure that you recover the maximum financial compensation you need to make a complete recovery that includes your physical, emotional, and financial well-being.

With DLG, your personal injury accident consultation is always free, confidential, and without any obligation. We’ll review the facts of your case and provide you with all available legal options to ensure that your rights are protected. Additionally, we’ll always aggressively pursue the maximum allowable financial damages award for your claim.

Ready to file a claim and pursue justice through a financial damages award? Our expert attorneys are available online or by phone now.

Contact a member of Dordulian Law Group’s Personal Injury or Car Accident Division today at 818-322-4056 for a free, confidential, and no obligation consultation. When you choose the experienced attorneys at DLG, there is never any upfront fee or out-of-pocket expense. We don’t charge anything until after we’ve successfully secured a maximum financial damages award on your behalf.

Reach out to one of our dedicated Los Angeles, California, personal injury attorneys today to discuss your case. Whether you were injured in an Uber/Lyft accident, hurt in a car crash, suffered an injury in a pedestrian accident, or were attacked by a dog, we’ll review the facts of your case, offer you a detailed explanation of all available legal options, provide you with an estimate for how long your claim may take to settle, and include an estimate for how much you can expect to receive from your settlement.

For a California personal injury claim, the best call you can make is to the experienced team of trusted attorneys at DLG.

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