In the course of any California personal injury claim, the issue of damages must be addressed to the satisfaction of the court. Without proving an actual loss, the court will not even hear a personal injury or wrongful death claim.
The plaintiff seeks remuneration, or economic restoration, in the form of compensatory damages. These type of damages include economic losses such as property damage, lost earnings, medical expenses, as well as general damages such as pain and suffering, loss of consortium or companionship, and other emotional distress.
The next type of damages is called “punitive.” Claiming punitive damages asks the judge to send a message punishing the defendant for the outrageous behavior causing injury.
According to California Civil Code § 3294(a), if the claim 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.”
Sections 3294(C) goes on to define “oppression” as “despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship…,” and “malice” as “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.”
In addition to the statutory language, California Supreme Court ruled in Bullock v. Philip Morris USA Inc. (2011) that punitive damages may take into consideration the wealth of the defendant when determining the ratio of punitive damages to the awarded compensatory damages. The Bullock case awarded 16:1 ratio of punitive damages.
This result succeeded despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore (1996) stating that punitive award may not exceed a reasonable range between three and ten times what is compensatory damages.
If you believe that your personal injury claim qualifies for punitive damages, you should speak to a qualified personal injury attorney to discuss the facts of your case.