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Punitive Damages in an Auto Accident Case

Damages in any personal injury matter are designed to make the injured party "whole." In other words, to return the injured person to the same condition they were in before the accident and had the accident not occurred. These damage include compensation for property damage, past and future medical expenses, lost income, and non-economic damages such as pain and suffering, anxiety, humiliation and the like. In some cases, however, another type of damage may be recoverable: punitive damages.

What are Punitive Damages For?

The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the responsible party. California Civil Code section 3294 establishes the requirements for punitive damages as follows: “(a) … where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant." That code section further defines malice, oppression, or fraud. The requirement, therefore, is to establish malice, oppression, or fraud by clear and convincing evidence. Although “clear and convincing evidence" is not defined, and various cases have attempted to set forth criteria for clear and convincing evidence, all courts recognize that this burden is greater than that normally required in civil cases by “preponderance of the evidence" or “more likely than not."

Punitive Damages a Car Accident Suit

Punitive damages are usually not recoverable for an automobile accident. The reason for this is because most people don’t normally intentionally intend to get in an automobile accident, or act in a malicious or oppressive way when driving their vehicle. In most cases, automobile accidents are just that, accidents. Recoverable remedies in these cases are for negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle. And, as a matter of law, negligence alone does not warrant punitive damages designed to punish the wrongdoer, nor can punitive damages be pled save exceptional circumstances that warrant them under California Civil Code section 3294.

Punitive Damages for a Drunk Driving Accident

The exception to this general rule is when someone is injured by an intoxicated driver. The seminal case dealing with punitive damage liability in an automobile case involving an intoxicated driver who injured another party is Taylor v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that 1979 case, the plaintiff suffered serious injuries when he was struck by the vehicle of an intoxicated driver. The court held that a person “who voluntarily commences and continues to consume alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing from the outset that he must thereafter operate a motor vehicle demonstrates such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that his conduct may be called willful or wanton; accordingly, punitive damages are recoverable in personal injury actions brought against an intoxicated driver."

The Fall 2009 California Civil Jury Instructions, BAJI 14.75, memorializes the requirements to prove the malice required to recover punitive damages in an automobile accident case. To establish malice, the plaintiff must prove that defendant(s): (1) voluntarily drank alcohol; (2) knew that he would operate a motor vehicle; (3) operated a motor vehicle in an intoxicated condition; (4) was aware of the probable consequences of his conduct; and (5) willfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences.

Punitive damages permit an injured party to recover damages to punish the defendant for drinking and driving. This significantly increases the value of a case, deters the intoxicated driver from driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and theoretically benefits society as a whole by reducing the number of drunk drivers on the road.

If one is involved in a motor vehicle accident, it is always prudent to obtain a copy of the police report and/or determine whether the driver was intoxicated. If the driver was intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, serious consideration should be given to pleading punitive damages. Whether or not punitive damages are actually pled in the complaint is a matter of choice and legal strategy.

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