Punitive Damages in Car Accident Cases

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What are punitive damages in a car accident case (California)?

Punitive damages are damages that are awarded to a victim for the sake of emphasizing that the at-fault party’s conduct is unacceptable. These types of awards are designed to further punish the wrongdoer – to the limit that a civil court in California can punish someone for their atrocities.

The civil court system is separate from the criminal court system. The civil court system is not responsible for charging wrongdoers with crimes. It is the criminal court system that will charge a wrongdoer with a crime. If the at-fault party’s conduct rises to the level of being criminal, then the District Attorney’s Office might file charges accordingly. The civil court system seeks monetary compensation from the wrongdoer for the victim, to make the victim “whole” again.

When a person is injured in a car accident, he or she may receive “damages” as compensation for his or her injuries. These “damages”, called compensatory damages, are money that is awarded to the injured person. The money an injured person can collect will often reimburse him or her for the cost of medical expenses and any lost wages that he or she may have suffered as the result of a car accident. Compensatory damages are different than punitive damages.

The state of California is not especially fond of punitive damages. Civil Code section 3294(a) provides: “In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the [compensatory] damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.” In simple terms, a plaintiff must show that there is a high probability that the at-fault party committed oppression, fraud, or acted with malice.

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In the context of a car accident, only the concept of malice is applicable. Malice is, under Civil Code section 3294(c): “conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” In other words, the at-fault party acted with malice if he intentionally hurt the plaintiff or acted so recklessly that he didn’t care if he hurt someone.

All of this boils down to one main point: for punitive damages to be awarded in a car accident case, the at-fault party must have either intentionally victimized the plaintiff or acted recklessly without any regard for whether he hurt someone. Simple negligence is not enough. An example of a case where punitive damages might be awarded would be if the at-fault party had multiple prior DUIs and decided to again drive while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol, injuring someone in the process. Someone who decides to play “chicken” with another car and strikes them or another vehicle might also be required to pay punitive damages.

Whether The May Firm seeks punitive damages in a car accident personal injury case will be determined on a case-by-case basis. The reality is that the at-fault party’s conduct has to be especially outrageous for punitive damages to be awarded. We are more than happy to discuss the possibility of seeking punitive damages with you.

Disclaimer: Information on this page is designed for general information purposes only and should not be interpreted as being legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts or circumstances. You should always consult with an attorney before making a decision about your case. Pages are updated periodically but information provided on this page may not be up to date as circumstances may change over time. Please see our [LEGAL DISCLAIMERS] page for additional legal disclaimers.

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