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California Law on Punitive Damages

California law on punitive damages are the legal remedies provided to the citizens of the Golden State when they are harmed by egregious or reckless conduct. What does California Law say on punitive damages?  To answer this question, we first have to explain what punitive damages are and when they might apply to a claim for personal injury in California.
California Law

What are punitive damages?

These are damages that a defendant in a civil action may be ordered to pay to punish them for particularly egregious conducting including personal injury and employment claims.  They are meant to have a deterrent effect on the defendant from acting in a same or similar way in the future.  They can be awarded to the plaintiff in addition to “compensatory” damages like medical bills, lost wages, and property damage.  Generally the cannot be awarded for a simple breach of contract but, can be awarded in cases such as insurance “bad faith” claims where an insurance company wrongfully refuses to pay a legitimate claim.  In order to obtain such an award against a corporate employer for the acts of an employee, there also needs to be proof that the employer (through a manager or officer) had advance knowledge of the conduct or “ratified” (approved) of the conduct.

Under the laws of the State of California, when is a plaintiff entitled to punitive damages?

The main Golden State statute that applies to these types of awards is California Civil Code Section 3294, which states as follows:

“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.”

“Oppression” is defined as “despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.”

“Fraud” means “intentional misrepresentation or deceit.”

“Malice” is defined as “conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff” or that shows a “willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”

What are some of the common scenarios where punitive damages are awarded to injured persons?

One does need to prove that one of the above definitions apply under a higher burden of proof than a normal personal injury claim. (The standard is by “clear and convincing evidence” [think if this as having to tip the scale about three quarters in the plaintiff's favor] as opposed to a “preponderance of the evidence” [think of this as having to only tip the scale slightly in favor of the injured person]).  However, there are many instances where this may apply to either a personal injury or an employment claim.  Some common examples include the following:

Why is it important to consult an attorney if you have been the victim of a DUI accident, an assault and battery or some other type of incident that may give rise to additional damages meant to punish the defendant?

As stated above, there are only certain specified categories which may entitle a person to be awarded damages above and beyond just compensating them for their out of pocket losses.  In addition, adequate proof must be shown on a much higher standard than is normally required to obtain this type of award. It is important to consult with a lawyer that is familiar with these types of claims and knows how to best obtain evidence through the civil discovery process that will give the person the best chance of being able to receive these additional money awards and prevent the wrongdoer from continuing to act in a way that hurts others.   This is why it is imperative for any person who has been subjected to severe conduct like assaults in the workplace, drunk driving accidents causing injuries or death or similar events to consult with and retain a lawyer as soon as possible after the event.

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