California cases and statutes have been interpreted in such a way that bar the recovery of punitive damages in wrongful death cases. There is an exception to this rule however - if the defendant has been convicted of felony homicide.
Punitive damages may be awarded to the decedent's estate in litigation brought by the estate's representative, if the action could have been brought by the decedent himself.
Punitive damages are different than non-economic damages in the sense that non-economic damages are not damage simply to "punish" the defendant, as punitive or exemplary damages are. Instead, when deciding on the amount for noneconomic damages, the jury is instructed to consider the following factors affecting the plaintiff:
1. The loss of the decedent's companionship, love, care, etc.
2. The loss of the decedent's sexual relations; and
3. The loss of the decedent's training and guidance.
Ms. Cinar's answer was very informative. I will comment on two practical matters I don't think she covered. It's hard to recover punitive damages and hard to collect awards of punitive damages. Insurance usually does not cover such awards, so you need a defendant who has plenty of money.
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You can seek punitive damages in any tort case where you can prove "malice". However,this may trigger an insurance exclusion. Generally you cannot claim punitive damages in a tort case based on negligence.
It appears from your post that you may or may not be referring to a wrongful death case where you can prove an intentional tort.
From the nature of your post ,you are asking about the proportionality test. California supreme court has laid out decisions that set some reasonable proportion between your compensatory damages and punitive damages.
However, there is no such proportionality test between economic and compensatory damages.However, a Judge can reduce both compensatory damages and punitive damages when the defendant brings a motion for new trial. The Judge may issue a remititur(meaning reduction of damages) . Judge can issue a conditional new trial subject to acceptance of the remititur.
These are more complex issues and I can go on,but wish to close at this time.
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