A Closer Look at Punitive Damages in California: When Are They Awarded and Why?

by Staff Blogger | March 4th, 2024

Punitive damages are a powerful tool for achieving justice and accountability in a personal injury case. These damages offer additional compensation for victims who suffered harm due to a defendant’s malicious or wanton actions. They punish wrongdoers for their conduct and deter similar behavior in the future.

In California, awarding punitive damages is subject to strict criteria. If you have suffered severe losses due to another’s gross negligence, our California personal injury lawyers at Berg Injury Lawyers can determine if your case qualifies for punitive damages and help you get the maximum award possible.

Introduction to Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are a unique type of compensation awarded in civil lawsuits. Unlike compensatory damages, which cover specific losses like medical bills or lost income, punitive damages penalize the defendant.

Sometimes called exemplary damages, this compensation may be awarded when the at-fault party’s conduct is especially negligent, demonstrating a willful disregard for safety or rights. This can occur due to intentional harm or gross negligence, such as a company knowingly selling dangerous products or an individual causing harm with deliberate intent.

Punitive damages are designed to punish the offender and convey a message that both the public and legal system disapprove of the behavior. They serve as a deterrent, underlining the gravity of the misconduct and its impact on the victim.

Criteria for Awarding Punitive Damages

Under California Statute 3294, you must show the following to be eligible for a punitive settlement:

  • Malice, Oppression, or Fraud: Demonstrate that the defendant acted with harmful intent (malice), unfairly targeted or burdened someone (oppression), or deceived intentionally (fraud).
  • Intentional or Reckless Conduct: Provide evidence that the defendant acted with a clear intention to cause harm or showed a blatant disregard for safety, such as drunk driving resulting in an accident.
  • Harm to the Plaintiff: Show that you suffered tangible or intangible harm, like physical injury or emotional distress, due to the defendant’s actions.
  • Insufficiency of Compensatory Damages: Argue that typical damages, like medical costs or lost wages, are inadequate to address the extent of your suffering or loss.
  • Need for Deterrence: Justify the punitive damages as necessary to prevent the defendant and others from engaging in similar behavior in the future, acting as a strong legal deterrent.

How Are Punitive Damage Awards Decided in Court?

After it’s decided that punitive damages are applicable, the court then determines the amount to be awarded, taking into account factors such as:

  • Severity of Misconduct: The court evaluates the seriousness of the defendant’s actions, taking into account factors like the extent of harm to the plaintiff, the moral wrongdoing of the defendant’s behavior, and whether this was an isolated incident or part of ongoing misconduct.
  • Defendant’s Financial Status: The court considers the defendant’s financial situation. The idea is to set the punitive damages high enough to discourage future misconduct yet not so high that they cause financial ruin. This can mean assessing their bank statements and assets to determine an appropriate amount.
  • Damage Caps: Courts must also consider caps on punitive damages. While California does not place a limit on exemplary damages in personal injury cases, the Supreme Court has ruled they cannot be excessive. Typically, this means they are within four times the compensatory damage award.

Punitive Damage Case Studies

Punitive damage varies by case. The following case study illustrates how a court may award punitive damages based on evidence and how the ruling may be challenged and changed:

Diaz vs. Tesla, Inc.

The case of Owen Diaz vs. Tesla, Inc. was filed in 2017. It centers around allegations of racial discrimination and harassment experienced by Owen Diaz, a former employee at Tesla’s Fremont factory. The lawsuit details various incidents where Diaz encountered racially charged language and behavior during his employment.

The case addresses the emotional distress and impact on Diaz due to these experiences. In determining compensatory damages, the court compared this case to similar previous cases to evaluate the extent of emotional damages. The court found that the compensatory award initially given to Diaz was excessive compared to the evidence presented, leading to a reduction in the award amount.

Initially, the jury awarded $137 million, including $130 million in punitive damages. However, the judge reduced these amounts, lowering the compensatory damages from $6.9 million to $1.5 million and the punitive damages from $130 million to $13.5 million.

The judge’s decision acknowledged Tesla’s inadequate actions to combat racism but deemed the original damages as excessive.

Have One of Our Qualified Attorneys Assess Your Case

In California, punitive damages are used to ensure accountability and discourage serious misconduct. If you or a loved one have been a victim of wrongdoing, consult with an experienced attorney who can help you pursue punitive damages.

Berg Injury Lawyers can help you seek the highest damage award possible and hold wrongdoers accountable. Contact us today to discuss your case and learn more about your rights and options in pursuing a punitive award.