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What Are Punitive Damages & When Are They Available in CA Car Accident Cases? P.1

Obtaining an appropriate amount of damages is an important issue in personal injury litigation since, without adequate recovery of damages, personal injury litigation usually isn’t worth the time and costs that go into it. Damages can be classified in different ways, but they generally fall into two categories: compensatory or actual damages and punitive or exemplary damages.

Most people are more or less familiar with compensatory damages. In car accident cases, compensatory damages will typically include things like medical bills, lost wages, and other readily measurable losses, as well as noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, anxiety, and loss of enjoyment of life. Compensatory damages, as the name implies, are meant to compensate the plaintiff for his or her injuries and losses.

Punitive damages are in another category altogether, since they are not intended to compensate the victim, but rather to punish the defendant in a civil context. The theory behind punitive damages encompasses such goals as a reformation of the defendant and deter others from engaging in the same behavior. In any event, punitive damages have a unique role, and because of this, are not available in every case.

Different states have different rationales and rules regarding the purpose of awarding punitive or exemplary damages and exactly when and to what extent courts may award punitive damages. Under California Civil Code, Section 3294, punitive damages are specifically aimed at “punishing the defendant” in a civil context in cases where he or she has been found guilty of “oppression, fraud, or malice.” The exact meaning of these terms is particularly important for plaintiffs and their attorneys to understand since without an adequate understanding a plaintiff may not know when to ask for punitive damages and is not going to be able to make the strongest possible case for an award.

We’ll pick up on this issue in our next post.

Source: California Civil Code, Section 3294-3296

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