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What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages may be awarded in addition to economic and non-economic damages in a personal injury case. 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.”)

California law permits the recovery of punitive damages where there has been “oppression, fraud, or malice.”

  • Oppression is defined as consciously subjecting a person to cruel and unjust hardship in disregard of his or her rights.
  • Fraud means deliberately misrepresenting, deceiving, or concealing something to take a way a victim’s property or legal rights.
  • Malice is to intentionally to injure another person, or to act with willful disregard of other people’s rights or safety.

If a person injured another deliberately, the victim may be entitled to punitive damages. Assault and battery are examples of deliberate harm.

Negligence, however, is not. in California, negligence must be considered “willful and wanton” to warrant punitive damages. Willful and wanton negligence occurs when a person fully understands the danger of an action, and that it is likely to cause a substantial harm, yet does it anyway.

The difference between gross negligence, “willful and wanton” negligence, and intent is difficult to prove and often subjective. One legal example of willful and wanton negligence comes from a case in which a railroad engineer who ignored two separate danger signals and crashed into another train. A passenger was injured, and the court held the railroad liable for the engineer’s willful and wanton negligence, because he must have known substantial harm would result from ignoring the signals.