Collecting Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Claim

Collecting Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury ClaimIn Southern California personal injury cases, the plaintiff is often entitled to recover economic and noneconomic damages, with the latter relating to pain and suffering, loss of companionship, etc. In addition to these damages, punitive damages are sometimes available to the plaintiff as well under a confined set of circumstances.

Punitive damages are applied in certain cases in order to punish and make an example of the defendant to other potential future offenders of the same egregious actions. Although punitive damages provide significant additional financial recovery for the plaintiff, they are not imposed to help the plaintiff recover based on his or her injuries. They are designed to discourage the same negative behaviors from occurring in society in the future and to comply with public policy.

If you successfully sue to recover these damages, the settlement you obtain can increase significantly. In California, the amount of punitive damages available in a personal injury lawsuit can range anywhere from 3 to 9 times the amount of compensatory damages provided.

Obtaining punitive damages

Under the California Civil Code (CA Civ Code § 3294 (2017)), section 3294(a):

“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 [compensatory] damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”

Section 3294(c) of the statute defines the terms, oppression, fraud, and malice:

  • “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.

Intentional torts lead to punitive damages

In general, the possibility of accessing punitive damages in a California personal injury exists when the defendant has carried out an intentional tort against the plaintiff. Examples of intentional acts can include sexual harassment, and assault and battery. It can also include things like allowing a defective product to reach the market, or purposely ignoring safety studies/trials for medications or emerging technologies.

The evidence provided against the defendant must demonstrate the presence of oppression, fraud, or malice on the defendant’s part and that one of these factors is highly likely to be true. As well, if no compensatory damages are awarded in the case, then no punitive damages may be awarded.

Punitive damages and drunk drivers

A defendant who drives under the influence of alcohol or drugs leading to a car accident provides the plaintiff with an opportunity to seek punitive damages for any injuries he or she suffers in the crash.

Following precedent established in Taylor vs. Superior Court of Los Angeles (1979), plaintiffs are permitted to obtain punitive damages when the defendant is found responsible for voluntary intoxication with alcohol or drugs with the prior knowledge that they will be operating a motor vehicle later. The action thus described demonstrates malice.

Intoxicated drivers are responsible for many accidents and this includes not only those intoxicated by alcohol or illicit drugs, but also those exhibiting negligence by taking medication that hinders their ability to drive safely.

How much can you collect in punitive damages?

A jury decides whether the plaintiff’s injury warrants punitive damages. If punitive damages are warranted, the jury will determine the size of the award. Although, the quantity of punitive damages awarded to a plaintiff is a subjective consideration, the law restricts the maximum quantity to nine times the actual compensatory damages awarded.

The wealth of the defendant is also a consideration in determining a reasonable punitive damages award. As is often the case with wealthy corporate defendants, the jury may increase the punitive damages accordingly based on their ability to pay and the punitive impact it has on them financially.

The Los Angeles personal injury lawyers at Taylor & Ring can help you pursue compensation for your injuries due to the negligent actions and behavior of another party. We employ investigators and professionals to evaluate your case in detail and hold any negligent parties accountable for your losses. To schedule a free, initial consultation about your case, call our law office today at 310.776.6390 or complete our contact form.