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How are Punitive Damages Awarded in California?

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When someone is injured at the fault of someone else, they may sue them for compensatory damages in order to repay their losses. Sometimes, they may also want to sue for punitive damages in order to punish the other person for their negligence. That being said, punitive damages in California are subject to rules and regulations that limit when a person may recover them. Punitive damages are reserved for when a defendant is proven to be guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice. The goal is to both punish the defendant for their behavior, and to deter them and others from performing that type of behavior in the future. These damages are not based on measurable losses but rather how blatant and malicious a defendant’s acts are. Punitive damages are awarded separately and in addition to compensatory damages.


What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages exist to punish the defendant for the actions they committed which led to the injury of another. They also set a precedent and act as a deterrent to prevent them or anyone else from doing likewise in the future. They are awarded in situations of malicious intent or extreme recklessness. Punitive damages are based on the nature of the behavior and the financial worth of the defendant.

Punitive damages are not the same as economic and non-economic compensatory damages. They are not meant to compensate the plaintiff, only to punish the defendant. Punitive damages are a matter of public policy which dictate what actions area considered so reprehensible that additional damages should be awarded. They are awarded separately from compensatory damages but cannot be awarded without them.


Punitive Damages vs Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are meant to repay the plaintiff for their losses. They can be economic damages such as medical bills, or non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. The goal of compensatory damages is to make the victim whole again.

Punitive damages are meant to serve as an extra punishment on top of compensatory damages. They are awarded when the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with such disregard for the victim that their actions exceed normal negligence. The goal of punitive damages is to punish wrongdoers and make an example of them to deter others from doing the same.


When are Punitive Damages Awarded?

Punitive damages are not always applicable. Sometimes an accident is just an accident, even if someone was at fault. Punitive damages in California are limited to situations of specific and severe misconduct that call for punishment and deterrence.

California Civil Code 3294 allows for punitive damages to be awarded when a plaintiff substantially proves with clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. In these situations, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. This means that it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to provide proof of the defendant’s guilt, not the responsibility of the defendant to provide proof of their innocence.

Malice refers to intentional conduct meant to cause harm or with disregard to the harm it could cause. Oppression refers to conduct that causes unjust hardship with intentional disregard to a person’s rights. Fraud refers to conduct that causes harm through deception, misrepresentation, or concealment of pertinent information.

In a personal injury claim, the plaintiff must also prove that their injuries were caused in connection to the defendant committing an act of malice, oppression, or fraud. In an employment claim against a corporate employer, the malicious, oppressive, or fraudulent action must be committed by an officer, director, or managing agent of the corporation.


What is Clear and Convincing Evidence?

Compensatory damages only require proof by preponderance of the evidence. This means that their claims must be considered to be more likely than not that the claim of negligence is true.

Punitive damages, however, require proof by clear and convincing evidence. This means that their claims must be proven a much higher degree of probability.


Situations Where Punitive Damages Can Be Awarded

According to California Civil Code 3294 “… where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”

  • ‘Malice’ is defined as “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’ is defined as “despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.”
  • ‘Fraud’ is defined as “an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact known to the defendant with the intention on the part of the defendant of thereby depriving a person of property or legal rights or otherwise causing injury.”


Willful & Wanton Negligence

Generally, courts do not award punitive damages for negligence. However, punitive damages may be awarded in situations of willful and wanton negligence. The California Supreme Court case Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co. found that when a defendant acts “intentionally with the knowledge that it will probably cause harm” they may be subject to additional punishment in the form of punitive damages.

In general negligence cases, the defendant might not know that their actions or inactions could cause harm. In cases of willful and wanton negligence, the defendant is aware of the possible and even probable consequences of their actions. Cases where punitive damages were awarded involved situations where the defendant acted not just reprehensively, but also intentionally. While the actions must be intentional, there are situations where the defendant did not intend to cause harm, but deliberately acted without regard for the harm they could cause. In these cases, a defendant’s negligence would most likely be considered “willful and wanton.”


Examples of When Punitive Damages Have Been Awarded

There are several types of situations where California courts may award punitive damages.

  • Assault & battery
  • Car accidents involving DUI
  • Felony murder
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • Medical malpractice
  • Sexual assault
  • Wrongful termination


Punitive Damage Considerations

There are a few things people might not realize about punitive damages. The first is that they are not awarded alone. They are a separate category but must be awarded in addition to some other type of compensatory or nominal damages. This is because punitive damages are awarded in cases where some kind of harm has been caused.

Despite what many people seem to think, punitive damages are actually very rarely awarded. According to a report from the United States Department of Justice:

  • Only 12% of plaintiffs in contract and tort cases asked for punitive damages
  • Only 5% of all plaintiffs who won their cases were awarded punitive damages
  • Only 30% of plaintiffs who seek punitive damages and go on to win their cases are awarded punitive damages.

Punitive damage awards are also smaller than people may think. According to that same report:

  • The median amount of punitive damages that are awarded is around $64,000
  • Only about 30% of punitive awards are around $250,000 or more
  • Only about 13% of punitive awards are around $1 million or more

About half of the cases where punitive damages were awarded will be subject to judicial review. This can reduce the final amount of the award.


Punitive Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim

For the most part, California law does not allow recovery for punitive damages in wrongful death cases. The main exception to this rule is in cases where the defendant is convicted of felony murder.

Punitive damages are sometimes awarded with a survivorship claim. Under California Code of Civil Procedure 377.34 the decedent’s personal representative or successor may be entitled to punitive damages if the decedent would have been entitled to them had they survived.


What is the Process for Seeking Punitive Damages

First, the plaintiff must request an award of punitive damages, though they may not specify how much they are seeking. Sometimes, the punitive damages are part of the same proceeding as the defendant’s liability, or the defendant may ask that it be bifurcated which means it would be tried separately. In the instance of a separate trial for punitive damages, evidence regarding the defendant’s wealth is not presented until after the plaintiff wins the case and the defendant is found guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice by a jury. This is to prevent swaying the jury based on how much the defendant can afford to pay.


Calculating Punitive Damages

When a defendant is found guilty of malice, oppression, or fraud, they may have to pay some amount of punitive damages. There are many things that are taken into consideration when determining how much they have to pay.


Factors That Impact Punitive Damage Calculations

While there is no fixed standard dictating how punitive damage awards are calculated, there are many common factors taken into consideration:

  • If the defendant caused physical harm
  • If the defendant disregarded the safety of others
  • If the defendant was deceitful
  • If the defendant took intentional advantage of the plaintiff
  • If the defendant’s actions were a pattern of behavior
  • The severity of the defendant’s reprehensible conduct
  • What amount would be proportionate to the actions
  • What amount would be enough to punish the defendant and deter them in the future

While a jury will want to be sure that the amount awarded is appropriate in regard to the defendant’s finances, they may not impose higher damages simply because a defendant can afford it.


Limits on Punitive Damages

California state law does not have an official cap on punitive damages in personal injury cases. However, The Supreme Court of the United States held in State Farm v. Campbell that “grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments” are forbidden under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. They determined that punitive damages must be reasonably proportionate to the compensatory damages and the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct.


Call Mesriani Law Group Today to Discuss the Potential to Be Awarded Punitive Damages

Have you been injured due to someone else’s reprehensible behavior? If that behavior amounted to malice, oppression, or fraud, you may be entitled to punitive damages. Punitive damages are an additional award separate from whatever amount of compensatory damages you may receive for your injury. Our personal injury attorneys are experienced and dedicated to helping you seek justice. If you believe you may be entitled to recover punitive damages, call Mesriani Law Group for a free consultation today.


Punitive Damage FAQs

How does California handle punitive damages?

If someone is seeking punitive damages in California, there are some steps they need to take. First, they must make a specific request for an award of punitive damages. Then, they must prove with clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is guilty of malice, oppression, or fraud. If the defendant is found guilty, the jury will determine a fair and appropriate amount to punish the defendant and deter them and others from the same conduct in the future.

Are Punitive damages covered in California?

According to California state law, punitive damages are generally uninsurable. This is because punitive damages are specifically a punishment and deterrent for deliberate and intentional actions. Not only do many insurance policies generally not cover intentional wrongdoing, but if they did pay those damages, it would negate the effectiveness of both the punishment and the deterrent.

What three things must a court consider in reviewing punitive damages?

According to the California Supreme Court, there are three things that must be taken into consideration when reviewing punitive damages:
• Degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct
• Disparity between the harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award
• Difference between the punitive damages awarded and the civil penalties imposed in comparable cases

How do you determine punitive damages?

Punitive damages are determined when the plaintiff provides clear and convincing proof that their injuries were caused in some way by the defendant acting in malice, oppression, or fraud. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, they assess factors of the situation such as the severity of the defendant’s behavior to calculate a fair monetary amount.


About the Author
Rodney Mesriani
Rodney Mesriani

Rodney Mesriani is the principal partner of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica based Mesriani Law Group. He specializes in personal injury and employment law while also being an accomplished litigator and trial attorney. Rodney is an aggressive negotiator and a well-known and respected attorney in the areas of practice he specializes in.

He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting from California State University Northridge before attending Southwestern School of Law where he received his Juris Doctorate. While being an accomplished personal injury and employment lawyer, Rodney Mesriani has made it a point to attend numerous State Sponsored MCLE events and seminars over the years as a law practitioner to be informed of the latest laws and litigation strategies.



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