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What Are Punitive Damages?

November 29, 2022 Personal Injury Blog

When you have been injured by another person’s wrongful or negligent actions, you want them to be held accountable for the harm they caused you. Generally, there are two ways that a wrongdoer may be held accountable for the harm caused to you. They can be held civilly liable or criminally liable. Civil liability holds wrongdoers financially accountable for the harm that they cause. They are responsible for compensating their victim for the economic and non-economic damages suffered by the victim. A civil case is between the wrongdoer and the victim. On the other hand, criminal liability serves as punishment for the wrongdoer. In a criminal case, the state prosecutes the wrongdoer on behalf of the public. 

If a person’s wrongdoing causes harm to another person, the wrongdoer may face both criminal and civil liability. They may have to pay financial compensation to cover their victim’s losses, and they may also have to serve time in prison or pay fines as punishment for their actions. Although the objective of a civil claim is not to punish the wrongdoer, there are some cases when a wrongdoer’s actions are so bad that the law allows the victim to claim punitive damages.

What are Punitive Damages?

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Punitive damages are financial damages awarded to a victim in addition to actual damages. Punitive damages are awarded when the wrongdoer’s actions are considered to be especially harmful, and they are awarded at the discretion of the court. Punitive damages are not easily recovered because the law limits the circumstances that qualify for punitive damages. 

Under California Civil Code § 3294, a victim may be entitled to punitive damages if they can show with clear and convincing evidence that the wrongdoer is guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.

Circumstances Where Punitive Damages are Not Applicable

There are certain circumstances where a victim will not be entitled to punitive damages from the wrongdoer. These include:

  1. Breach of contract cases
  2. Generally, an employer may be held responsible for the damages caused by their employees, however, they are not liable for punitive damages unless:
    1. The employer had advance knowledge that the employee was unfit for the job and employed him or her anyway, in disregard of the public’s safety,
    2. The employer approved or accepted the employee’s actions, which gave rise to the claim for damages, or
    3. The employer was personally guilty of fraud, malice, or oppression.

How Do You Know if the Defendant is Guilty of Fraud, Malice, or Oppression?

California Civil Code § 3294 defines what fraud, malice, and oppression mean under the law.

  • Fraud: an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact known to the wrongdoer, which caused the victim’s injury
  • Malice: any conduct by the wrongdoer to intentionally cause injury to the victim or any despicable conduct carried out by the wrongdoer with a willful and conscious disregard of the safety of others
  • Oppression: any despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.

These are legal terms that may not be identifiable without the assistance of a skilled personal injury attorney. If you have been injured as a result of another person’s misconduct, you may be entitled to punitive damages in addition to the actual economic and non-economic damages you suffer. The experienced San Diego personal injury lawyers at CaseyGerry can help you recover the damages you deserve.

Call us today at 619-679-9972 to schedule a free consultation with one of our San Diego personal injury attorneys.