What Are Punitive Damages? Examples of Punitive Damages in California

August 30, 2022 | Article by Chain | Cohn | Clark staff

What Are Punitive Damages? Examples of Punitive Damages in California

Punitive Damages in California

Sometimes an injury case is more severe and requires more of a punishment than regular personal injury benefits. Normally, the money awarded after somebody sustains harm from negligence is used to cover the accident’s expenses. But if the defendant knowingly partakes in dangerous or harmful actions, there is a need for additional consequences. 

In California, the victims of gross misconduct or negligence may be able to recover punitive damages if they can prove the defendant knew what they were doing. If you think you have a case for punitive damages, reach out to Chain | Cohn | Clark to begin building a solid case. 

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are financial benefits awarded to the victim of a civil suit intended to punish the defendant for their actions. Also sometimes called exemplary damages, they are not meant to cover any of the plaintiff’s expenses. The injured party will be able to recover additional compensatory damages on top of the punitive benefits to cover costs associated with the accident.

Punitive damages are administered by a judge or jury and aim to dissuade the behavior of the defendant. Monetary punitive damages can be awarded from any of the following situations:

  • Wrongful termination
  • Sexual assault
  • Intentional emotional aggravation
  • Car accidents caused by a driver who was under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Assault and battery

As you can see, there is a common thread of the liable party being aware of their actions. Punitive damages are typically only awarded when somebody knows what they are doing.

When Are Damages Awarded in an Injury Claim?

Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are not a part of every personal injury case. For a defendant to receive this additional punishment, they must have demonstrated behavior beyond regular misconduct or negligence. 

The requirements which must be met for punitive damages to be considered are outlined in California Civil Code 3294. Under this law, exemplary damages will only be awarded when there is clear and convincing evidence of oppression, fraud, malice, or willful and wanton negligence. 

Clear and Convincing

Evidence must be presented in a way that indicates oppression, fraud, or malice with a very high likelihood. The proof of this must be more persuasive than any other bits of evidence in the lawsuit. Along with being convincing, the evidence must also clearly demonstrate the link between the negligence and the accident which occurred. 

Malice, Oppression, and Fraud

California Civil Code 3294, Article 3, Section (c), Parts 1-3 provide the legal meanings of malice, oppression, and fraud in California when determining punitive damages.:

  • Malice: “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 of safety of others.”
  • Oppression: “Despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.”
  • Fraud: “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.”

Proving the presence of these elements with clear and convincing evidence will make or break your case for recovering punitive damages. 

Willful and Wanton

One of the most important parts of these definitions is the purposeful disregard for other people’s safety. In California, this is usually referred to as willful and wanton negligence. Individuals who perform an act with the knowledge that it will likely cause harm are punished beyond the regular negligence consequences. 

In a normal negligence case, the defendant may put people in danger without being completely aware. Willful and wanton negligence requires previous awareness of the risk. This type of negligence is often seen in reckless driving cases. 

Wrongful Death Claims

Section (d) of 3294 outlines another addition to possible punitive damages cases. In California, punitive damages are not permitted in wrongful death cases unless the defendant is convicted of a felony murder. 

The representative of a deceased victim’s estate may also pursue punitive damages through a survivorship claim. A survivorship claim can help living loved ones recover any punitive damages the victim may have been entitled to themself if still alive. 

How Are Punitive Damages Calculated?

In a personal injury case, compensatory damages are calculated based on what a victim loses as a result of the accident. This could include medical bills, property repairs, lost wages, money for emotional distress, etc.Punitive damages have virtually nothing to do with the costs incurred from the victim’s perspective. When calculating punitive damages, the amount is determined based on the negligent actions and the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. 

Here are some of the factors that will be considered when deciding the value of exemplary benefits:

  • The physical harm caused
  • Disregard for the safety of others
  • How punishable the behavior was
  • Trickery or deceit
  • Patterns of misconduct
  • Necessary fine to discourage future action
  • Whether or not the defendant extorted the victim’s financial situation
  • The relationship between victim and defendant

Punitive damages will not be increased just because the defendant has more money. However, the size of the fine necessary to discourage repeat actions may increase depending on the financial resources of the liable party. 

Punitive Damage Limits in California

Punitive damages in California can be significant because there is no state damage cap. U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past have upheld that fines must be “reasonable and proportionate” to the harm caused by the defendant’s actions, but depending on the situation this can be a substantial amount. 

Examples of Punitive Damages

The easiest way to understand the function of punitive damages is to look at a hypothetical. 

Suppose you work for a large corporation in a factory. Federal regulations require all employees to wear a helmet, safety glasses, and gloves while in the plant. Your employer buys everyone their own helmet and glasses but decides that gloves would need to be replaced too often. Every pair of gloves costs $15, and there are 10,000 total employees at the plant.

If on average, employees went through three gloves each year, the total cost would be $450,000 (15 x 3 x 10,000). If only 5 people got hand injuries on the line each year and each one asked the company for $50,000, the total cost would be $250,000 (5 x 50,000). So instead of continuously buying gloves, your employer decides it will be better for the bottom line to save on equipment and simply cover the injuries of anybody whose hand gets cut or scraped. 

While financially this seems like a smart move, it involves knowingly ignoring federal regulations and putting people at risk. If one of the employees decided to sue the company after their injury and it came out that the employer is not requiring gloves around the plant, there may be a case for punitive damages. 

When determining the value of those damages, the court would need to bear in mind that each year the company was saving roughly $200,000––so a fine of $100,000 might still not be sufficient to discourage the misconduct. Even though the injuries may not be that serious, the severity of negligence from putting all 10,000 employees at risk is drastic enough to warrant comparable punishment. 

In the same sense, smaller companies that don’t make as much money might not be charged as much even if they put someone at risk for more serious injuries. 

What Are Treble Damages in California?

Sometimes punitive damages are awarded via treble damages. Treble damages are three times the compensatory value of an existing lawsuit. The state law must approve of punitive damages being awarded and the tripling of compensatory damages for this to be a viable option. 

In California, treble damages can be awarded in the following circumstances:

  • Defense contractors submit false claims to defraud the government
  • Patent infringements
  • Trademark counterfeiting cases
  • Antitrust violations

Most cases involving treble damages have this consequence predetermined. 

Filing a Punitive Damages Claim

Anybody seeking punitive or treble damages should first be certain whether or not their case warrants that type of reward. If you are confident that federal or state law supports punitive damages in your case, you can prepare a punitive damages claim. This involves writing a complaint that outlines the gross negligence or misconduct you believe the defendant engaged in. Remember, you must present your case in a way that pushes the defendant’s actions beyond simple negligence by proving the intention or awareness of harm to others. 

If punitive or treble damages could be supported by law in your injury case, you must specifically request them in your complaint or your right to them will be waived. While it’s sometimes possible to still gain access to these damages early after the case has started, it’s best to think about obtaining punitive benefits right from the start. 

Hiring an Injury Lawyer in California

Punitive damage legislation varies by state. Bringing in a resident expert on the topic can greatly increase your chances of successfully recovering damages. Additionally, hiring a legal professional can help you present your evidence in a clear and convincing way that outlines why you are entitled to punitive damages.

The injury attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Clark are ready and willing to take on your case for punitive damages. Call us at (661) 616-9829 or fill out our online contact form today.