Act and Be Damned: The Law on California Punitive Damages

“Dignum et justum est. ”

— The Missal

Punitive damages are monetary damages awarded to a plaintiff when the law says the defendant should be punished.

When Punitive Damages are Available

Punitive damages should be awarded if the defendant acted with fraud, malice, or oppression. See California Civil Code 3294. Examples include:

  • Hit and run car accident (there should be serious injury and an actual attempt to flee);
  • Car accident and defendant was DUI;
  • Commercial truck accident with violations of maximum driving time and actual driver fatigue;
  • Products liability case where there is evidence that defendant acted with a conscious disregard for the safety of others; and
  • Intentional torts (e.g. sexual battery)

How to Get Punitive Damages

If the defendant has acted with fraud, malice, or oppression, you need to obtain and present meaningful evidence of the defendant’s financial condition. In order to discover evidence of the defendant’s financial condition, file a motion under California Civil Code section 3295.

A defendant’s financial condition is important because whether an award of punitive damages is actually punitive depends on the wealth of the defendant. The purpose of the award is to punish the defendant, so hit them where it hurts: the wallet.

For example, a $25,000 punitive damage award against an intoxicated defendant who caused a car accident is punitive. A $25,000 award against a large company who knowingly disregarded the safety of its consumers is not. But a $25,000,000 is.

Factors for Punitive Damages

A jury must consider 3 factors when assessing punitive damages: 1) the amount of the punitive damages in light of the defendant’s financial condition; 2) the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; and 3) that the punitive damages bear a reasonable relation to the plaintiff’s harm. These factors must be weighed against any award of punitive damages.

Questions? Contact Me for a free consultation.

Evan Walker

Evan W. Walker is a La Jolla attorney who has practiced law since 2008. He has practiced law throughout California, Connecticut, and Louisiana.

Evan worked for and defended insurance companies during the first 7 years of his practice. Since 2015, he has represented people with personal injury and property damage claims and insurance disputes.

Evan’s practice is devoted to serious personal injury claims and catastrophic property damage claims. Areas of focus include security claims against bars and other businesses, government tort claims, fire and flood claims, and inverse condemnation. On behalf of clients, Evan has fought insurance firms, international companies, cities, bars, and casinos.

Evan regularly shares his expertise with other attorneys by teaching courses on insurance and inverse condemnation. He has taught several continuing legal education courses to Attorney Credits, a nationwide CLE company, and ProLawCLE, another nationwide CLE company. He also contributes to various podcasts and publications.

Associations:

  • Member, State Bar of California
  • Member, San Diego Bar Association
  • Member, Consumer Attorneys of California
  • Member, Consumer Attorneys of San Diego
  • Member, La Jolla Bar Association
  • Member, La Jolla Village Merchants Association
  • Member, San Diego Chamber of Commerce