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What Are Punitive Damages?

The McClellan Law Firm

Victims who are injured as the result of another's negligence or wrongful act may have a right to pursue compensation through a personal injury claim or lawsuit. A person may be able to recover damages for physical, emotional, and / or financial losses resulting from an accident. This could be anything from hospital costs and therapy expenses to lost wages or earning capacity. In extreme cases, victims may be able to recover an additional form of compensation known as punitive damages.

Compensatory Damages vs. Punitive Damages

Unlike compensatory damages (physical, financial, etc.), punitive/exemplary damages serve a two-fold purpose. They are mean to essentially punish the defendant for their reckless actions and deter them from committing such actions in the future. They are not meant to reimburse the victim for any economic loss of injury, which compensatory damages take care of.

Punitive damages can be added on top of compensatory damages when a defendant’s actions are considered to be extremely negligent, malicious, or punishable in any way.

What § 3294 of California Civil Code Says About Punitive Damages

According to § 3294 for the California Civil Code, punitive damages are allowable if a defendant is guilty of "oppression, fraud, or malice." Under the law, these are defined as:

  • Oppression – Despicable conduct that subjects victims to unjust hardship in disregard for their rights.
  • Fraud – Intentional misrepresentation or concealment of facts with the intent to deprive another of property or rights, or cause some type of injury.
  • Malice – Intent to cause harm or to willfully disregard the rights or safety of others.

Generally, wrongdoers who exhibit egregious negligence or intentional acts of misconduct may be held liable for punitive damages. Proving that punitive damages are applicable, however, is a difficult task that demands the attention of a seasoned attorney.

When Will the Court Consider Awarding Exemplary Damages?

The court will consider a broad range of information in a personal injury case. There are several key elements that they will look for when deciding whether or not to award punitive damages in such a case.

For example, the following must apply to the lawsuit:

  • The plaintiff was already awarded some other type of actual damages (compensatory, nominal, etc.), as punitive damages cannot be awarded alone.
  • The defendant in the case must have been more than just negligent—their actions must have been overtly purposeful, with an awareness of potential consequences.
  • The acts must have directly harmed the plaintiff in most cases.

Other factors the court will typically take into consideration include the actual damages suffered by the plaintiff (punitive damages must be relatively proportionate to these damages), the amount of harm suffered by the victim, offensive conduct on behalf of the defendant, and similar matters.

How Much Punitive Damages Can Be Given?

Calculating punitive damages can be extremely challenging. There is no exact formula that is followed in every case, but there are some guidelines that the court must follow. For example, the amount of punitive damages awarded must be relatively proportionate to the actual damages, as mentioned above.

In general, it is suggested that this amount not exceed four times the total amount of compensatory damages awarded. The final number may be higher in cases involving injuries that are difficult to detect or non-economic harm that is more challenging to calculate.

Is a Lawyer Needed for Recovering Punitive Damages?

Whether or not you may be eligible to recover punitive damages will depend entirely on the unique facts of your case. Plaintiffs must understand their case and carefully calculate the potential punitive damages before making a claim. If not, they may misjudge the appropriate amount and hinder their case.

Punitive damages can be recovered in a variety of personal injury cases, including:

Our team can review your case to determine if you can pursue punitive damages and the appropriate amount you should claim. Take the first step by calling our San Diego personal injury lawyers.