Is there a cap on personal injury damages in California? Does California have punitive damages? All of your questions about the types of damages in California, answered.
When you file a personal injury lawsuit, you’re asking the court to award “damages,” or a monetary amount that’s intended to compensate you for your losses.
The essence of personal injury law is that it’s intended to make you, the plaintiff, whole again. In other words, the person who was injured seeks to be restored to the condition they were in before the injury happened.
Of course, you can’t always return to the same physical condition you were in before the accident or injury, and you certainly can’t bring back a lost loved one. But a damage award should at least restore your bank account. It should provide money to pay for your past and future injury-related medical expenses, any ongoing treatments or therapies, costs for assistance with your daily activities, and other costs associated with the original injury, including pain and suffering.
What’s considered a “personal injury”?
From a legal perspective, a personal injury is any physical or economic harm caused by another person or entity’s negligence.
For our purposes, we’ll refer to a “defendant” as a person. But in reality, a defendant could be anything that has legal status — a person, company, government agency, school, or nonprofit organization.
“Injury” can be the result of a car accident. It can also be an accident that occurred because of dangerous surroundings (like a slip-and-fall on a slick floor in an office building). It could be that you were wronged in a contract dispute over real property, or it could be that you were the victim of libel or slander.
A personal injury doesn’t necessarily mean that you were physically hurt. It only means that you suffered some kind of harm — physical, emotional, or economic — that was caused by someone who was negligent or reckless.
Let’s take a look at the types of damages you can be awarded in a California personal injury lawsuit.
Compensatory damages in California
Compensatory damages are the money that you can receive to repay you for financial losses or costs directly related to the injury. These include both economic and non-economic damages.
Economic includes medical costs, income, and property loss. Non-economic could be pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life.
Here’s a breakdown:
- Medical treatment. A personal injury award almost always includes the cost of medical care, both to repay what you’ve already spent on care and to pay for estimated future costs. Your lawyer will work with experts like doctors, accountants and actuaries to determine what your future medical needs will entail and what they’re likely to cost.
- Income. You can also claim salary and wages as a loss from an accident. This would include time you had to take off from work following the injury, a reduction in wages if you had to return to a different job than the one you had before the accident, and loss of earning capacity. Loss of earning capacity is the difference between what you would’ve earned for the remainder of your lifetime and what you will actually earn because of the accident.
- Property loss. If you’re filing a lawsuit because of a car accident, the cost of replacing or repairing your car would be included under property loss. You’re entitled to the fair market value of any property lost, including your home or other belongings if they were damaged as part of the injury.
- Emotional distress. Emotional distress damages compensate a plaintiff for the non-physical effects of an injury. This might include fear, anxiety, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other psychological conditions that arise following a trauma or injury.
- Loss of enjoyment. Life is about more than the necessities. You might be able to eat, sleep, and function, but can you enjoy your time? If you were an athlete who’s been disabled in an accident, or a pianist who effectively lost use of your hands, you might be suffering because you’ve lost a substantial amount of enjoyment in your life. And you don’t need to be an Olympian or Beethoven to suffer loss of enjoyment. Anyone who has been injured to the extent that they lose some level of capacity to do the things they previously enjoyed—even if it’s walking your dog or playing with your kids—could be eligible for a damage award for loss of enjoyment.
- Loss of consortium. The perception of a loss of consortium claim is that it’s just about sex, but that’s not true. Actually, if a loved one has been in an accident and lost the ability to provide love, affection, companionship, comfort, or even the ability to participate in household responsibilities and child-rearing, you might have a loss of consortium claim.
Punitive (exemplary) damages in personal injury cases
In general, a personal injury award isn’t intended to punish a defendant. As we said earlier, it’s about making the plaintiff whole. Of course, that does mean the defendant must pay the damage award, but it’s about providing the plaintiff what they’re owed.
Punitive damages are a whole different story.
If the defendant’s actions were particularly egregious or careless, the court could determine that the defendant needs to be punished. In that situation, the court awards punitive damages, or an extra amount of damages on top of the compensatory amount, that’s designed to punish the defendant from wrongdoing. In California, punitive damages are also referred to as “exemplary” damages.
California law requires that the court take 3 factors into consideration when evaluating the validity of a punitive damage award claim:
- Reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct.
- The amount of compensatory damages awarded or actual harm suffered by the plaintiff.
- The defendant’s financial condition.
|Case study: Taylor v. Superior Court (598 P. 2d 854 - Cal: Supreme Court 1979)|
|“Something more than the mere commission of a tort is always required for punitive damages. There must be circumstances of aggravation or outrage, such as spite or ‘malice’ or a fraudulent or evil motive on the part of the defendant, or such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that his conduct may be called willful or wanton.”
Plaintiff Cameron Charles Taylor sued Clair William Stille for damages from a car accident in which Stille was driving drunk. During the course of the lawsuit, it was determined that Stille knew that he was an alcoholic and that he had a “tendency, habit, history, practice, proclivity, or inclination to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.” He was also aware of how dangerous it is to do so.
The court found that driving drunk was a conscious disregard for the safety of others, enough to satisfy the requirement for malice under the Civil Code. Taylor was able to establish that Stille was aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his actions, and willfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences.
Taylor v. Superior Court is still cited in court cases today.
California’s punitive damages are based on these definitions of malice, oppression, and fraud in its Civil Code.
|Malice||Conduct intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff, or despicable conduct by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of others’ rights or safety.|
|Oppression||Despicable conduct subjecting a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard for that person’s rights.|
|Fraud||Intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact known to the defendant, made with defendant’s intent to deprive the plaintiff of property or legal rights, or to otherwise cause injury.|
Damage caps in California lawsuits
California doesn’t cap compensatory damages in personal injury lawsuits. In other words, there’s no maximum amount for an award. It’s up to the judge and jury to establish a fair and reasonable award of damages.
The exception to this is California medical malpractice, which caps at $250,000 on pain and suffering and other non-economic damages.
Pain and suffering damages in California
Pain and suffering falls into the category of non-economic damages. You can put a cost on therapy sessions, medication, and lost work time, but you can’t put a price on feelings.
Pain and suffering includes:
- Mental anguish
- Emotional distress
- Loss of society and companionship
- Loss of consortium
- Harm to reputation
Assessing your damage claim
Figuring out how much to claim in damages following an injury is a tough task. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. A personal injury lawyer can help you calculate a reasonable demand based on the expert opinions of medical and financial professionals, as well as precedent (similar cases that have already been decided).
Read more about attorney-client privilege and confidentiality.
Use the Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory to find a California lawyer who’s right for your case. They’ll walk you through the steps to filing a lawsuit, negotiating a settlement, and going to court if it becomes necessary. Regardless, they’ll work hard to get the outcome you need to replace your financial and additional losses.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.