Do Punitive Damages Apply to Personal Injury?

The goal of a personal injury lawsuit is mainly to reimburse a victim for the damages he or she suffered due to the negligence of another party. The civil justice system is primarily to help the victim, not to punish the defendant. In some cases, however, a judge may deem it necessary to penalize the defendant during a civil case for particularly egregious acts. The judge may order the defendant to pay the plaintiff punitive damages, or an additional compensation award as restitution for the accident victim. To Learn more about this subject contact a personal injury attorney.

What Are Punitive Damages?

The two main categories of damages, or financial relief, during a personal injury claim in California are compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages repay an injured party for the specific losses suffered in an accident. Compensatory damages include noneconomic and economic damages, such as medical bills, lost wages, property damage repairs, legal fees, and pain and suffering. Punitive damages, on the other hand, serve to punish the defendant rather than reimburse the plaintiff.

The law about punitive damages in California is California Civil Code 3294(a). This law states when a plaintiff’s side of the case proves the defendant guilty of certain actions in addition to causing damages, the plaintiff may recover an additional award to punish the defendant. In a wrongful death case, the plaintiff may receive punitive damages if his or her lawyer can prove the death resulted from homicide for which the courts have convicted the defendant.

The Burden of Proof for Punitive Damages

In every personal injury case, the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff’s side. It is up to the injured party or his or her lawyer to prove the case based on a preponderance of evidence, meaning proving something is more likely to be true than not true. To obtain punitive damages in addition to actual damages, the plaintiff’s side of the case must prove eligibility for these damages. California law states the plaintiff’s attorney must prove the defendant guilty of oppression, fraud or malice to obtain a punitive damage award.

  • Oppression. Despicable actions with a disregard for the victim’s rights that subject the victim to cruel and unjust hardship.
  • Fraud. Deliberate misrepresentation or concealment of facts or deceit to deprive the victim of property or legal rights, or of otherwise causing injury.
  • Malice. Intentional conduct meant to injure the plaintiff or despicable conduct committed with a willful disregard for the rights or safety of others.

In general, a defendant’s actions leading to the plaintiff’s losses, injuries or the death of a loved one must qualify as reckless, malicious, intentional or grossly negligent. A plaintiff is more likely to prove his or her eligibility for punitive damage during a civil case with representation from an attorney. A judge will ultimately decide whether a plaintiff should receive a punitive award.

Exceptions to the Rule

The law places limits on when a plaintiff can obtain punitive damages during a personal injury claim. It states that an employer will not have to pay punitive damages for the acts of an employee unless the employer had prior knowledge of the employee’s propensity to harm and employed him or her regardless of the safety of others, or if the employer was guilty of fraud, oppression or malice itself. To obtain punitive damages from a corporate employer, an officer, director or managing agent at the corporation must be guilty of wrongdoing.

Section 377.62 of California’s Code of Civil Procedure prevents a plaintiff from obtaining double punitive damages through both a civil case and a criminal case. It states a civil action arising from the defendant’s same wrongful act may not result in punitive damages if the victim has already obtained financial restitution during a criminal trial that resulted in the conviction of the defendant. A plaintiff should discuss his or her unique personal injury case with an attorney in Sacramento to determine possible eligibility for punitive damages.