Last time, we began speaking about the important topic of punitive damages in California tort cases. As we noted, the rationale and rules surrounding punitive damages awards vary from state to state, so it is important for plaintiffs to always work with experienced local counsel to effectively navigate the law in their case.
As we mentioned, punitive damages will only be awarded in cases where there is a finding of malice, oppression or fraud. By malice is meant conduct intended to cause injury to the plaintiff or “despicable conduct” carried out with “willful and conscious disregard” for the rights and safety of others. Typically, punitive damages are going to be awarded in car accident cases under the banner of malice.
Proving malice in a car accident case can be tricky. In some cases, a personal injury defendant may request a protective order from the court requiring the plaintiff to provide evidence of a “prima facie” case of liability for punitive damages prior to the admission of evidence of the profit to the defendant as a result of the wrongful conduct and the financial condition of the defendant. In such cases, a plaintiff will have to make a case for malice, or oppression or fraud if applicable, without using information about profit or financial condition. In cases where the evidence is there, this may not be that difficult. In cases where the evidence is weaker, it will be more difficult.
In order to win an award for punitive damages, malice must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. In terms of burden of proof, clear and convincing evidence stands somewhere between preponderance, the ordinary civil burden of proof, and beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the criminal standard. In other words, the case for malice must be strong.
In our next post, we’ll take a look at a several types of car accidents and how malice may be considered with respect to punitive damages in these cases.
Source: California Civil Code, Section 3294-3296