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When Does California Law Allow Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?


If you have a claim for personal injury in California, you are entitled to pursue a variety of damages. You can seek to recover compensation for the medical bills generated as a result of your injury, you can recover any income you’ve lost or will lose in the future as a result of the injury, and you can recover for the emotional harm that a serious accident or injury can cause. Under certain circumstances, you may also be eligible to recover punitive damages. Below, we explain punitive damages and when they are available in a California personal injury case. If you’ve been hurt through someone else’s negligence in Southern California, call a dedicated Agoura Hills personal injury attorney at the Halpern Law Firm for a free consultation.

What Are Punitive Damages?

When people think of damages recoverable in a personal injury case, they typically think of things like medical expenses or pain and suffering. These types of damages are known as “compensatory damages,” in that they are meant to compensate the plaintiff for the harm they suffered. The monetary recovery is supposed to put the plaintiff back in the position they should have been, absent the injury. Although it’s not perfect, even pain and suffering damages are meant to repair the damage caused.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are all about punishing the wrongdoer. They are awarded on top of compensatory damages and are meant to punish especially outrageous conduct and deter other people from committing similar wrongful acts in the future. Punitive damages are not available in every case, but when they are on the table, the potential total recovery is significantly higher; a plaintiff may recover many times more than their “actual harm” measured by compensatory damages. In California, there is no cap on punitive damages in personal injury cases, although the U.S. Supreme Court has said that awards “exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages” are likely to violate due process.

How Can You Get Punitive Damages in Your Personal Injury Case?

In California, punitive damages can only be awarded under certain circumstances. The plaintiff must demonstrate by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s conduct amounted to malice, oppression, or fraud. Simple negligence is not sufficient to award punitive damages, even if the plaintiff was severely harmed.

Clear and convincing evidence is a higher standard than the usual “preponderance of the evidence” standard for other elements of a personal injury claim. A preponderance of the evidence generally means that it is more likely than not that each element of the claim is true. California law does not specifically define “clear and convincing evidence,” but the standard is something higher than a mere preponderance.

California’s Civil Code includes specific definitions for “malice,” “oppression,” and “fraud.” Malice refers to conduct actually intended by the defendant to harm the plaintiff or where the defendant demonstrated a willful and conscious disregard of the rights and safety of others. Oppression refers to “despicable conduct” that subjected the plaintiff to “cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.” Fraud, on the other hand, refers to intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact, which is known by the defendant, and which was performed by the defendant to deprive the plaintiff of their property or legal rights. Every case is different, but conduct such as drag racing, excessively high speed, road rage incidents, or heavily intoxicated driving might justify punitive damages if they cause harm to another person.

If you or someone you love has been injured due to someone else’s negligence in Southern California, call a passionate and effective personal injury attorney at the Halpern Law Firm. We fight for the compensation you and your family deserve. Contact us at (818) 785-5999 today. These cases are handled on a contingency basis, meaning you won’t be charged any attorney’s fees unless we win.

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