• What Are Punitive Damages In A Civil Claim?

    What Are Punitive Damages In A Civil Claim?

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  • What Are Punitive Damages In A Civil Claim?

    What Are Punitive Damages In A Civil Claim?

    California Personal Injury Lawyers Helping Accident Victims Nationwide

What Are Punitive Damages In A Civil Claim?

Punitive damages or sometimes referred to as exemplary damages are damages that are awarded by the discretion of the court for particularly egregious activity. The purpose of these damages is to discourage further conduct by the violating party.

For example, if repaying a customer for fraud was the only damage available, business could build it into their expenses to break the law, punitive damages could award up to nine times the damages to teach the company a lesson.

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The Ehline Law Firm can Help You Understand Punitive Damages

Public policy demands that specific actions are so heinous that the perpetrator should face harsh punishment. Punitive damages include the defendant’s wealth when determining the appropriate amount of penalty. Contact a professional attorney today at (213) 596-9642 for legal advice.

Malice, Oppression, or Fraud in California Law

In California, the law that deals directly with punitive damages awards is Civil Code §3294(a), and this code states that “in an action where we can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of malice, oppression, or fraud, the plaintiff may recover damages in addition to the actual compensation for the sake of deterrence and by way of punishing the defendant.”

That means for the punitive damages award to enact, the defendant’s conduct is wrongful. To award punitive damages, the defendant must have acted in one of those three ways.

Definitions of Oppression, Fraud, or Malice

Civil Code §3294(c) provides the definitions for malice, oppression, and fraud (in relation to punitive damages):

“Malice” refers to behavior that the defendant engages in with the intent of injuring the plaintiff or vile conduct that the defendant engages in with a purposeful and intentional disdain for the rights or safety of others.

“Oppression” refers to the heinous act of subjecting a person to cruel and unjust hardship in deliberate violation of that person’s rights.

“Fraud” is a deliberate misrepresentation, deception, or concealment of an important truth known to the defendant to deprive a person of property or legal rights or inflict other harm.

How Punitive Damages Work

A plaintiff gets both punitive and compensatory damages together and never alone, and that gives an increase to a plaintiff’s award because they offer a way to mete out extra punishment to the defendant for conduct that shows willful and conscious disregard.

Willful and Conscious Disregard

The court may hold a defendant liable for punitive damages if the suit is on the grounds of clear evidence that the defendant was personally guilty of willful and conscious disregard.

“Willful and conscious disregard” means that the defendant intentionally acted while knowing fully well the high probability that injury or damage to the claimant would result in injury or damage but still pursued that negligent wrongful conduct, resulting in injury or damage. According to California civil jury instructions, the defendant’s conduct was so reckless or careless that it constituted a conscious indifference.

The Premise of Cruel and Unjust Hardship

The premise of the punitive damages award is that making the defendant pay compensation beyond compensatory damages will deter them and others from committing similar wrongful conduct in the future. In personal injury cases, the jury may add punitive damages to compensatory damages, covering the victim’s medical expenses, property damage, pain and suffering, and other fees.

For example, say a weight loss company advertises that its dietary supplements are safe and natural, but a customer takes the supplements and fell violently ill by it according to medical reports the customer’s doctor makes to show that the supplements reacted with the customer’s prescription medication to cause the illness.

If the ill customer files a lawsuit against the weight loss company, they may claim damages to cover their medical expenses and lost wages, with a claim that the company should have known that the supplements will react with a person’s medication and issued a warning about the risks.

The civil court rules in the ill customer’s favor and awards both punitive and compensatory damages to the customer to cover the victims’ expenses and deter them and other companies from repeating the conduct.

However, before the plaintiff can get punitive damages awarded, the California court must consider several factors, like assessing the defendant’s actions as malicious or grossly negligent.

The Supreme Court provides guidelines for calculating punitive damages, but while there is no maximum limit to punitive damages awarded, they typically do not exceed four times the amount of compensatory damages.

While it is true that anyone can claim punitive damages only when a defendant acts maliciously against the plaintiff, punitive damages may nevertheless exist in the absence of intent to hurt, depending on the magnitude of the defendant’s conduct or omissions.

A typical negligence lawsuit claims that the defendant was merely careless and that the defendant’s failure to exercise reasonable care resulted in the plaintiff’s injury.

Indeed, punitive damages are not even justified in instances where the defendant acted recklessly or was severely negligent. (North v. Lackner, 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1210-11 (2006)). Even when there is no intent to cause injury, negligent behavior may result in punitive damages if it amounts to “despicable conduct” committed with a “willful and knowing disregard” for the safety of others. (3294(c) of the Civil Code (1))

Punitive damages are not sufficient for deplorable behavior since the defendant must also be aware of the likely harmful effects of its acts while willfully failing to avert them. (Mock v. Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Co. Ins. Co., 4 Cal.App.4th 306, 328-29 (1992)).

The plaintiff must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s conduct was sufficiently “wanton and intentional” to create a virtual certainty of injury to others.

While the guidance provided by our courts and legislature for navigating punitive damages claims based on negligence theories is far from clear and highly fact-dependent, it is a mistake to believe that your client or insured is immune from a significant punitive damages award simply because the complaint contains the word “negligence.” Defense counsel should exercise caution accordingly.

If a defendant’s conduct is particularly heinous, the plaintiff suffers more injury than the punitive damages asked, or sums granted in similar cases are greater, and the court may impose more punitive damages.

The jury may also award higher punitive damages if the non-economic loss is challenging to quantify, injuries are difficult to detect and may require ongoing care, or the defendant’s behavior is particularly offensive.

Regardless of the amount of punitive damages awarded, the court will give the defendant reasonable notice of the amount and the reason supporting the award.

Contact Our Team, Today

Ehline Law Firm is ready to take care of your legal matter. Our lead counsel, Michael Ehline is a man of great honor and his integrity from his service in the US Marines manifests in the Ehline legal team. Contact Ehline Law Firm now for more information.

Ehline Law is an award-winning personal injury law firm in California headquartered in Los Angeles. Satisfied clients know our superior injury attorneys have more than a decade of experience winning and maximizing their damages compensation awards. Ehline Law firm’s lawyers serve people injured in accidents involving a passenger car, motorcycle, dog bite, bicycle, cruise ship, wrongful death, and physical injuries caused by a defendant’s negligence.

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Los Angeles, CA 90071
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