Most lawyers and their clients know that, under California law, a person can be compensated for the full amount of damages (medical expenses, lost earnings, compensation for pain and suffering, etc.) he or she has sustained as a result of the negligence of another.

Punitive Damages for Reckless Misconduct

In aggravated situations, when a judge or jury determines that damages were sustained as a result of what is found to be the intentional misconduct of another, then the judge or jury can award an additional sum of damages to the plaintiff – an amount intended to punish the defendant called punitive damages. So, in the case of a defendant’s intentional misconduct, the damage award given in favor of the plaintiff is often far greater than where the defendant’s underlying misconduct is merely negligent.

Less widely known is that, under California law, there is a hybrid category of misconduct that (like intentional misconduct) can give rise to an obligation by the defendant to pay punitive damages. This category of conduct, frequently called “reckless misconduct” or “despicable conduct”, is defined in California Civil Code Section 3294. The statute defines the degree of non-intentional misconduct that can legally give rise to an obligation to pay punitive damages as either: “despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others”; or: “despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.”

Claimants should consider carefully whether the defendant’s conduct might be found by a judge or jury to have crossed this line from mere negligence to “reckless misconduct.” If that is the case, then the plaintiff’s potential damages award is greatly increased, and he or she should seek enhanced damages.

Ralph L. Jacobson of GJEL Accident Attorneys represents plaintiffs in personal injury cases.

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Ralph Jacobson, a Stanford Law alumnus, has focused on personal injury law for over 30 years. With numerous articles in the CEB Civil Litigation Reporter, one of which was cited by the California Supreme Court, his expertise is well-recognized. Ralph has consulted for Bancroft Whitney on its California Civil Practice Series and lectured extensively on personal injury law. He’s a co-author of California Government Tort Liability Practice and a member of both the Alameda and Contra Costa County Bar Associations, now serving as counsel to the firm.