Not all lawsuits will entitle a plaintiff to punitive damages.
In California, an award of punitive damages requires a finding, by clear and convincing evidence, “that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice . . . .” (Civ. Code, § 3294, subd. (a).) Malice, for this purpose, is defined as “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.” (Id., subd. (c)(1).)
The words “willful” and “despicable” were added by the Willie L. Brown Jr.-Bill Lockyer Civil Liability Reform Act of 1987. (Stats. 1987, ch. 1498, § 5, p. 5780.) “[T]he statute’s reference to ‘despicable’ conduct seems to represent a new substantive limitation on punitive damage awards. Used in its ordinary sense, the adjective ‘despicable’ is a powerful term that refers to circumstances that are ‘base,’ ‘vile,’ or ‘contemptible.’ As amended to include this word, the statute plainly indicates that absent an intent to injure the plaintiff, ‘malice’ requires more than a ‘willful and conscious’ disregard of the plaintiffs’ interests. The additional component of ‘despicable conduct’ must be found.” (College Hospital, Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 8 Cal.4th 704, 714.)
“‘Despicable conduct’ has been described as conduct which is ‘“. . . so vile, base, contemptible, miserable, wretched or loathsome that it would be looked down upon and despised by ordinary decent people.”’ Such conduct has been described as having the character of outrage frequently associated with crime. (American Airlines, Inc. v. Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 1017, 1050-1051, quoting Mock v. Michigan Millers Mutual Ins. Co. (1992) 4 Cal.App.4th 306, 331).
Civil Code section 3294(b) provides that an employer shall not be liable for punitive damages, based upon acts of an employee, UNLESS the following are shown:
1) the employer had advance knowledge of the unfitness of the employee and employed him or her with a conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others;
2) the employer authorized or ratified the wrongful conduct for which the damages are awarded; or
3) the employer was personally guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.
With respect to a corporate employer, Civil Code section 3294(b) requires the advance knowledge and conscious disregard, authorization, ratification or act of oppression, fraud, or malice to be on the part of an officer, director, or managing agent of the corporation.
The information presented here is general in nature and is not intended, nor should be construed, as legal advice. This posting does not create any attorney-client relationship with the author (who is only admitted to practice law in the State of California). For specific advice about your particular situation, consult your own attorney.
I would add to Mr. Chen's thorough explanation of punitive damages, that ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in State Farm Auto Insurance vs. Campbell in 2003, that punitive damages in almost any case should be limited to a single digit ratio to compensatory damages, many courts have cut large punitive awards. It is not unusual to see punitive damages in wrongful termination cases, when awarded, limited to two to four times the compensatory damages, or even less. The days of suing primarily to recover punitive damages are over.
They say you get what you pay for, and this response is free, so take it for what it is worth. This is my opinion based on very limited information. My opinion should not be taken as legal advice. For true advice, we would require a confidential consultation where I would ask you questions and get your complete story. This is a public forum, so remember, nothing here is confidential. Nor am I your attorney. I do not know who you are and you have not hired me to provide any legal service. To do so would require us to meet and sign written retainer agreement. My responses are intended for general information only.
The term punitive damages are damages over and above compensatory damages which are designed to punish the wrongdoer, not simply compensate the victim of the wrongful conduct. Typically examples would include an award of attorneys fees and/or a multiplication of the compensatory award. As was stated, the ratio is generally single digit, and if higher than that, runs the risk of both being appealed and overturned as excessive.
**Disclaimer: Charles F. Basil is licensed in CT only. Any opinion given is based upon the general principles of law, but local laws may vary. This opinion is given for informational purposes only, and no attorney client relationship has been formed. Opinions on a website can not and should not supplant the advice of an attorney presented with all of the facts in your jurisdiction.**
You've received excellent and detailed responses to your question. I write to add that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages from a public sector employer. Also, "punitive damages" are sometimes called "exemplary damages." Whether the goal is to punish the employer or make an example of the employer, there is only one recovery for these damages, not two. They are the same thing.
Marilynn Mika Spencer
The Spencer Law Firm
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*** All legal actions have time limits, called statutes of limitation. If you miss the deadline for filing your claim, you will lose the opportunity to pursue your case. Please consult with an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible to better preserve your rights. *** Marilynn Mika Spencer provides information on Avvo as a service to the public, primarily when general information may be of assistance. Avvo is not an appropriate forum for an in-depth response or a detailed analysis. These comments are for information only and should not be considered legal advice. Legal advice must pertain to specific, detailed facts. No attorney-client relationship is created based on this information exchange. *** Marilynn Mika Spencer is licensed to practice law before all state and federal courts in California, and can appear before administrative agencies throughout the country. She is eligible to represent clients in other states on a pro hac vice basis. ***