What Are Punitive Damages?

When one person injures another deliberately, in addition to recovering monetary compensation for medical expenses, lost past and future wages, pain and suffering, and other damages, the victim is also entitled to recover “punitive damages” from the wrongdoer. California law permits the recovery of punitive damages where there has been “oppression, fraud, or malice.” Malice is defined as conduct that is intended to cause injury to another person or despicable conduct that is done 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. There are three reasons justifying the imposition of punitive damages: (1) to punish the person for his deliberate and intentional misconduct; (2) to prevent or deter him or her from acting that way in the future; and (3) as an example to others that if they engage in similar conduct, they will have to pay a high price for it. (For this reason, punitive damages are sometimes called “exemplary damages.”)