How to Get “Punitive Damages” in a Personal Injury Case
(California Civil Code 3294)

California Civil Code § 3294 permits a plaintiff to be awarded “punitive” damages in a personal injury case. Punitive damages are also known in California as “exemplary” damages.

Unlike "compensatory damages" (such as medical bills, lost wages, lost earning capacity, car repair bills and pain and suffering), punitive damages are based not on the plaintiff's losses, but on the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct and the defendant's ability to pay.

They are granted to punish a defendant who has acted with malice, oppression or fraud, typically in cases of intentional harm or extreme recklessness.

When granted, California punitive damages are in addition to amounts awarded as compensatory damages.

To help you better understand how to get punitive damages in a California personal injury case, our California personal injury and accident lawyers discuss, below:

1. When can a plaintiff get punitive damages in California?

California Civil Code 3294 allows a jury to award punitive damages in a personal injury case. The plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant's conduct amounted to malice, oppression, or fraud.

Punitive damages are not intended to compensate a plaintiff for his or her losses. Rather they serve to:

  • Punish people and companies who engage in particularly bad behavior, and
  • Serve as an example to discourage both the defendant(s) and others from behaving similarly in the future.

2. The legal definition of “malice, oppression or fraud”

California Civil Code 3294(c) defines “malice,” “oppression” and “fraud” as follows:

“Malice” means:

  • 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.

“Oppression” means:

  • Despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person's rights.

“Fraud” means:

man in suit with fingers crossed behind back

3. What is “clear and convincing” evidence?

To recover compensatory damages in a California personal injury case, the plaintiff must usually prove each element of the claim by a preponderance of the evidence.1

This means the plaintiff must simply show it is more likely than not that each element of the claim is true.

But when it comes to punitive damages, the plaintiff must prove malice, oppression or fraud by “clear and convincing evidence.”

California law does not specifically define this term. But it is a higher burden of proof than “preponderance of the evidence.”

It requires the plaintiff to prove malice, oppression or fraud with a high degree of probability.2

4. The process for getting punitive damages in California

A plaintiff must specifically ask for an award of punitive damages. The request may not be specify an amount being sought.3

Punitive damages are sometimes determined in the same proceeding as the defendant's liability.

Or the defendant can request that the issue be "bifurcated" and tried separately.4.

If the trial is bifurcated, the jury will not hear any evidence of the defendant's profits or financial condition unless and until:

  1. The plaintiff first wins the case, and
  2. The jury determines that the defendant is guilty of malice, oppression, or fraud.

Only then will the jury hear evidence of the defendant's finances and determine what amount of punitive damages to award.5 This avoids prejudicing the jury against a "deep pocket" defendant.

5. How does the jury determine the amount of punitive damages?

There is no fixed standard for determining the amount of punitive damages in a California personal injury case.6

In determining whether to award punitive damages and, if so, how much, the jury will consider:

  1. How reprehensible the defendant's conduct was;
  2. Whether there is a reasonable relationship between the amount of punitive damages and the plaintiff's harm; and
  3. What amount will punish the defendant and discourage future wrongful conduct, taking into account the defendant's financial condition.7

6. Is there a cap on punitive damages in California?

Unlike other some states (such as Nevada) there is no cap on punitive damages in a California personal injury case.

But the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the imposition of grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments.8

The United Supreme Court has held that punitive damages must, therefore, bear a reasonable relationship to the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff.

The more reprehensible the behavior, the higher the multiplier can be.910

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process.”11

Example: Robert is awarded compensatory damages of $100,000 in a lawsuit for a a serious construction accident. The jury determines that the construction company acted with willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others. It is guilty of “oppression” as defined in California Civil Code section 3294.
Robert's California injury lawyer proves that the construction company has significant assets. The jury awards Robert $5,000,000 in punitive damages.
The judge then rules that the amount is excessive because it is equal to fifty times Robert's compensatory damages. The judge reduces the punitive damages award to $500,000 (a multiplier of five times the compensatory award).
Robert's total award is $600,000: $100,000 in compensatory damages plus $500,000 in punitive damages.

Need help getting punitive damages in California? Call us…

california personal injury attorneys punitive damages
Call us at (855) LAWFIRM

If you believe you were injured due to someone's malice, fraud or oppression, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us (855) LAWFIRM or fill out the form on this page to discuss your case with with an experienced California injury lawyer.

You may be entitled to punitive damages under California law.

If you were injured in Nevada, you may wish to read our article on punitive damages in Nevada.

Legal references:

  1. California Evidence Code §115.
  2. In re Angelia P. (1981) 28 Cal.3d 908.
  3. California Civil Code § 3295(e).
  4. California Civil Code Section 3295.
  5. See Adams v. Murakami (1991) 54 Cal.3d. 105.
  6. See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3940.
  7. Same.
  8. Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., 532 U. S. 424 (2001).
  9. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003).
  10. BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U. S. 559(1996); Simon v. San Paolo U.S. Holding Co., 35 Cal. 4th 1159 (2005).
  11. State Farm, endnote 9.

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