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Understanding Punitive Damages in California Personal Injury Cases

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

If you have a personal injury case and you think the defendant’s behavior was outrageous or shocking, as opposed to being a simple mistake, you might wonder if you can ask for punitive damages. Very few personal injury plaintiffs get an award of punitive damages, but sometimes, these exemplary damages are appropriate.

A California personal injury attorney can help you go after punitive damages in your case if you qualify. Here are some points that can help you in understanding punitive damages in California personal injury cases.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are in addition to the standard compensatory damages that are supposed to compensate you for your losses, like medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. The intent of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer and send a message to the defendant and others that they should not engage in similar conduct in the future.

For example, when a corporation puts profits ahead of the health and safety of consumers and has little regard for the harm their profit or service might cause, a jury might tack on millions of dollars in punitive damages on top of the compensatory damages award. Also, when someone repeatedly harms others through reckless conduct, like a drunk driver with several previous DUI convictions, they might have to pay punitive damages.

In the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee spill case, the lawyers for the plaintiff discovered that many previous McDonald’s customers had gotten burned by the coffee, but the corporation refused to lower the temperature of the coffee they served. McDonald’s decided that it was cheaper to pay the medical bills of people they harmed than give free coffee to people who complained that their coffee got cold. The punitive damages award changed that heartless calculation and made it more expensive to the corporation when it injured people.

How Can a Personal Injury Plaintiff in California Get Punitive Damages?

The issue of punitive damages in personal injury claims in our state is different from standard compensatory damages in two ways, the type of evidence and what the plaintiff has to prove.

The Type of Evidence Required for Punitive Damages

For the other things that the plaintiff must prove, like that the defendant was negligent and caused the accident that injured the plaintiff, the level of proof required is merely a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, the person seeking standard (compensatory) damages must show that it is more likely than not that what the plaintiff alleges is true.

For punitive damages, the burden of proof is much higher. The plaintiff must give the court clear and convincing evidence of the factors that would make punitive damages appropriate.

What the Plaintiff Must Show for Punitive Damages

In addition to proving the defendant’s liability for the compensatory damages, a plaintiff seeking punitive damages must specifically ask for punitive damages in the pleadings and show that the defendant engaged in fraudulent conduct or acted oppressively or maliciously.

In a typical fender-bender, for example, there would be no grounds for punitive damages. If, on the other hand, the at-fault driver intentionally rammed his supervisor’s car out of anger because he got fired, there might be justification for punitive damages for malice.

A California personal injury attorney can evaluate your personal injury case to determine if you might qualify for compensatory and punitive damages. Contact us today for more information and a free consultation.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.