There are two types of damages in tort cases: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages reimburse, or rather compensate, the victim for the costs associated with the harm done to them. Compensatory damages are divided into two segments: economic (e.g., medical expenses and wage loss) and non-economic (e.g., pain and suffering) damages.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, do not compensate the victim but are meant to punish the wrongdoer and prevent future acts of the same kind. Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, can be part of a settlement in some jurisdictions but are more usually awarded by a judge or jury. If you have been harmed by another person or entity, you may be able to seek punitive damages. At The Geller Firm, our personal injury attorney in California can help you understand what damages your specific claim may demand. Contact us today at 415-840-0570 to schedule a free consultation and understand better what you may be able to seek in damages.
Understanding the Purpose of Exemplary Damages in California
While punishing the defendant for extremely poor conduct is the main goal of punitive damages, there are several other, lesser goals that they can accomplish. For example, exemplary damages can:
- Make up for what appears to be an insufficient amount of compensatory damages
- Deter future conduct that is similar to what the defendant did
- Coerce the defendant to change their normal set of practices
- Penalize the defendant for conduct that is wrongful, but not quite criminal
Punitive damages are awarded only when the claimant or plaintiff can show that the defendant acted with reckless, malicious, wanton, intentional, outrageous, or reprehensible conduct. When they are awarded, they are often much higher than compensatory damages simply because of their punitive purpose.
Caps and Prohibitions against Punitive Damages in California
Some states have bowed to lobbying pressure from insurance companies and have either capped or outright prohibited punitive damage awards in personal injury cases. In these states, it can be difficult or impossible to recover exemplary damages from a defendant that has acted extremely poorly.
The U.S. Supreme Court also placed Constitutional limits on punitive damages awards. In the last 20 years, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a number of cases, with its view on punitive damages evolving if ever so slightly here and there. Generally speaking, however, The U.S. Supreme Court views large punitive damages awards as a potential violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments' Due Process Clauses. The relevant U.S. Supreme Court cases are many and include:
- Pacific Mutual Life Insurance co. V. Haslip
- TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources
- Honda Motor Co. v. Oberg
- BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore
- Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc.
- State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell
- Philip Morris USA v. Williams
- Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker
Examples of Punitive Damages in California
Punitive damages are rarely granted. Generally, you are more likely to obtain a punitive damage award if the case involves products liability, wrongful death, or medical malpractice. Still, any personal injury claim has the potential for punitive damages if malice or recklessness can be proven.
To better understand when punitive damages could be awarded, here are two examples of cases where large punitive damages were awarded.
- Product Liability. In Robinson v. RJ Reynolds, $23.6 billion dollars in punitive damages were awarded to the Robinson family, which was in addition to $16.9 million in compensatory damages. This was a tobacco case. Michael Johnson, Sr. died from lung cancer, which his family proved was caused by cigarettes manufactured and distributed by Reynolds. No greater harm exists than causing someone to die. Compensation was awarded to the family for the loss of their loved one and all the expenses, pain, and suffering that stemmed from it. Punitive damages, however, were awarded because of RJ Reynolds' alleged lies and cover-up. On appeal, the punitive damages were reduced to $2 million (after the matter was retried).
- Wrongful Death. In Calandro v. Radius HealthCare Center, $12.5 million in punitive damages were awarded to Genevieve Calandro's family, which was in addition to $1.5 million in compensatory damages. Ms. Calandro was a patient at Radius HealthCare Center, a nursing home. She fell and was taken to the hospital. At the hospital, it was determined that she had been a victim of nursing home abuse and neglect. She was found with pressure ulcers on her backside, a urinary tract infection, kidney failure, appendicitis, and other ailments, which had all gone untreated. She died at the hospital. The family proved her death was the result of this negligence.
Punitive damages are not always in the millions and billions. It is all dependent on the jurisdiction, facts, and circumstances as well as policy considerations.
When applying punitive damages, in yet another U.S. Supreme Court case State Farm v. Campbell (2003), the Court said that lower courts should look to the reprehensibility of the wrong and determine an acceptable punitive-to-compensatory damage ratio. The Court did not impose a bright line ratio. Instead, it pointed out that the ratio should be based on how egregious the act was and how hard it is to determine non-economic damages. But also, a punitive to compensatory ratio greater than 9:1 is likely in violation of the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution. For example, if a plaintiff was awarded $100,000 in compensatory damages and $900,000 in punitive damages––the latter is likely in violation of the due process clause.
Contact a Personal Injury Lawyer in California Today
If you have suffered losses due to someone else's negligence or intentional act, you might be able to demand punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. At The Geller Firm, our personal injury attorney will review your case, investigate the facts and circumstances, and advise you accordingly. To get solid legal advice and representation, contact us at 415-840-0570 or fill out our online form to schedule a free consultation.