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What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case

In a personal injury case, the term “damages” refers to the amount of money that is sought and potentially awarded.  Compensatory damages are those that are most commonly awarded.  As the word suggests, compensatory damages are designed to compensate the injured person (the plaintiff) for injuries or losses that were caused by the negligent party (the defendant). Far less frequently, the plaintiff may be entitled to pursue punitive damages along with compensatory damages.  

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are a separate and distinct category of damages that are only available under certain circumstances.  They serve to punish the defendant with an additional financial loss for any especially egregious acts or behavior.  They also are designed to serve as an example – to discourage the defendant, as well as others, from repeating the unreasonable behavior. In fact, they are also known as “exemplary” damages.  Especially in cases where the defendant is a large corporation, the punitive/exemplary damages are sometimes significantly larger than the compensatory damages awarded.  In order to affect the future action of other similar businesses, the amount must be large enough to have the industry take notice.  

Historical Examples 

Punitive damages are not new.  There are references to these types of payments in religious texts such as the Book of Exodus, as well as in Babylonian law and the Code of Hammurabi. Punitive damages go back nearly to the advent of law itself.  They predate the Giza Pyramids by millennia and are found within the Hebrew Covenant Code of Mosaic Law, Hittite law, and the Hindu Code of Manu. 

Who Pockets the Award?

Even though the reasoning behind an award of punitive damages is to set an example and to punish the defendant, and not necessarily to further compensate the plaintiff, some or all of the awarded damages will still end up going to the plaintiff.  Ultimately, the award of punitive damages puts the plaintiff in a better financial position and also serves to deter the defendant (and ostensibly others) from repeating egregiously bad behavior.

Punitive Damages Guidelines

California jury instructions lay out the circumstances under which punitive damages may be awarded.  The plaintiff must have proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant engaged in the behavior that caused harm to the plaintiff with one or more of the following:

  • Malice – the defendant’s actions were despicable and performed with willful and knowing disregard of the safety or rights of another. The defendant knew of the probable negative consequences and failed to avoid them.  Malice is often alleged when punitive damages are sought following a drunk driving accident.
  • Oppression – the defendant’s actions were despicable and subjected the plaintiff to unjust and cruel hardship in disregard of the plaintiff’s rights. Conduct that is despicable is so vile or contemptible that reasonable people look down on and despise it.
  • Fraud – the defendant purposefully concealed or misrepresented a material fact with the intent to harm the plaintiff.

The jury instructions regarding punitive damages further suggest things to consider when determining the dollar amount of punitive damages to award based on how reprehensible the defendant’s conduct was:

  • Did the conduct cause physical harm?
  • Did the defendant disregard the health or safety of others?
  • Did the defendant know that the plaintiff was financially weak or vulnerable and take advantage of that?
  • Does the defendant’s conduct represent a pattern or practice?
  • Did the defendant act with trickery or deceit?

Watch the YouTube video.  The clip below reminds us that the repercussions caused by drunk driving are not just financial.

Sacramento Car Accident Lawyer

Hello.  I’m Ed Smith, and I have been a Sacramento car accident lawyer, protecting the rights of injured Northern Californians for more than 38 years.  Whether your injuries were caused by egregious behavior or standard negligence, you are entitled to seek compensation from the party that caused your harm.  To receive compassionate, free, and friendly advice from an experienced injury lawyer, call our office at (916) 921-6400 locally or (800) 404-5400 from outside the area. If you prefer, you may also send an inquiry online.

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