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The essence of a punitive damage claims is to punish someone who’s wrongs are unconscionable, so they don’t harm anyone else. The payment of punitive damages is paid to the injured plaintiff. A punitive damage claim in any type of case requires more than a showing of carelessness or negligence. In California, the defendant must have acted “with malice, oppression, or fraud.”

In sexual assault and abuse cases, you can argue that the abuser did act with malice, oppression, and/ or fraud. That’s why experienced sexual assault lawyers regularly file a punitive damage claim in addition to a tort claim on behalf of clients who have been raped, assaulted, or otherwise abused.

Defining malice, oppression, and fraud

These words have specific meanings under the law.

  • “’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.
  • ‘Oppression’ means despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.
  • ‘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.”

CA Civ Code § 3294 (2018)

The relevant laws and liable parties

The award of punitive damages in California is generally controlled by the above statute and California Civil Jury Instruction 3947. The jury decides whether the defendant’s conduct caused harm with malice, oppression, or fraud.

The plaintiffs in sexual abuse and assault cases can often show that the person who committed the abuse acted with malice. The question experienced sexual assault and abuse lawyers often work to address is, whether the corporation or organization that managed the employee can also be found liable for punitive damages. Civil Jury Instruction 3947 provides that the defendant employer or defendant organization can be held liable for punitive damages if the employer or organization:

  • Committed the act itself
  • Had foreknowledge that the defendant would commit the act
  • Authorized the act
  • Approved of the act

For example: If a school is aware that a teacher has committed a sexual assault, but transfers that teacher instead of firing him/her and reporting him/her to the police, then the school may be held liable for “passing the trash,” and could be ordered to pay punitive damages.

How punitive damages are determined

Juries generally can consider the following factors when assessing punitive damages:

  • There must be some compensatory damage award
  • The defendant’s ability to pay the punitive damage award
  • The severity of the wrong
  • The relationship to the actual harm

In compensatory damage claims, the plaintiff must prove his/her claim by a preponderance of the evidence – essentially more than 50% likely. In punitive damage cases, the plaintiff must prove the claim by clear and convincing evidence.

All sexual harassment, assault, and abuse cases are extremely serious. They don’t happen by accident. The abuser intends to harm you. The Los Angeles sexual assault attorneys at Taylor & Ring fight to hold the accountable parties responsible for your emotional harm, physical harm, job and income losses, and your medical treatments. We demand punitive damages for egregious wrongs. To speak with an attorney who will respect your concerns and fight for you every step of the way, call us at 310-776-6390 or complete our contact form to schedule a confidential and free initial consultation.


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