How Do You Get Punitive Damages?
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How Do You Get Punitive Damages?

A California statute allows for the recovery of punitive damages in accident and injury lawsuits when the conduct of the person that caused the injury was malicious, oppressive, or fraudulent. Punitive damages are not commonly attained. Before awarding punitive damages, a court will require the injured party to show a defendant’s malice, oppression, or fraud by clear and convincing evidence. This is a tough standard to satisfy, and injured parties will face significant challenges when they seek punitive damages in a lawsuit.  

For more than 25 years, the Los Angeles personal injury lawyers at Ellis Injury Law have helped injured persons to recover damages to compensate them for their injuries, including both compensatory and punitive damages. If the facts of your accident case indicate that punitive damages may be available, we will use the full measure of our knowledge and experience to explain those facts to show how they rise to the level of malice, oppression, or fraud that California law requires for punitive damages awards. 

Penalizing the wrongdoer and deterring future bad conduct 

Unlike compensatory damages, which are designed to make an injured party whole by providing payment for his or her medical expenses, lost wages, and other losses that were caused by a wrongdoer’s conduct, punitive damages are intended to punish conduct that is perceived to be egregious and to prevent the wrongdoer from engaging in similar conduct in the future. Some examples of punitive damages awards in California are good illustrations of this: 

  • a court awarded punitive damages in a consumer protection case involving defective designs that led to serious automobile injuries where those damages were perceived as being necessary to deter objectionable corporate policies; 
  • punitive damages were appropriate where an arresting officer used excessive force that led to injuries during the arrest of a suspect; 
  • punitive damages have been awarded in civil actions that followed assaults by wrongdoers that had knives or other weapons; 
  • multiple assaults by an employer on an employee also justified a punitive damages award. 

Proving malice, oppression, or fraud by clear and convincing evidence 

To justify a demand for punitive damages, an injured party must make a detailed claim of how a wrongdoer’s actions were motivated by malice, oppression, or fraud. Where malice is an issue, an experienced California personal injury lawyer will describe an injury in a manner that demonstrates how the wrongdoer intended consequences that were almost certain to occur as a result of the wrongdoer’s conduct. Awareness of bad consequences or knowledge that certain actions could have adverse effects are lynchpins toward recovering punitive damages for malicious conduct. For example, an intoxicated driver that causes a serious automobile accident may be liable for punitive damages because of the accepted fact that drunk driving is known to be dangerous. A manufacturer will be liable for punitive damages if it places product in commerce that is known to have a potential for serious harm.    

Further, to recover punitive damages for oppression, an injured party must show that the wrongdoer’s conduct subjected the injured party to cruel and unjust hardships in violation of that person’s rights. Punitive damages for fraud may be available when a wrongdoer intentionally misrepresents or conceals material facts with the purpose of depriving the injured party of his or her property or of causing the injury.  

Calculating punitive damages 

California does not set limits on the size of punitive damages awards, nor does it provide specific guidance on how to calculate those awards. A California court will generally direct a jury to determine an appropriate amount of punitive damages based on:

  • how egregious the wrongdoer’s conduct was
  • the extent of a party’s injuries
  • the amount that will be an effective punishment given the wrongdoer’s financial condition
  • if there is a history of this conduct/injury occurring

Although the State does not place caps on punitive damages awards, the U.S. Constitution’s prohibitions against grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments are frequently cited to reduce very large punitive damages awards.   

Call Ellis Injury Law To determine if you may be entitled to recover punitive damages 

Your opportunity to recover punitive damages will depend on the expertise of the attorneys that you retain to represent you in your lawsuit. In more than 25 years of representing injured parties in southern California, the personal injury lawyers at Ellis Injury Law in Los Angeles have fought for and have successfully recovered damages in cases involving a wrongdoer’s reprehensible conduct. Please see our website or call us to consult with one of our attorneys after you have been injured as a result of someone else’s malice, oppression, or fraud.   

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