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.
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