In special cases, a court will award punitive damages to a plaintiff. Whereas actual damages compensate a plaintiff by putting him in the position he would have been in had the injury not occurred, punitive damages serve a different purpose. They are meant to “punish” the defendant when the court determines that he acted maliciously, wantonly or recklessly. The larger purpose of awarding punitive damages is to try to deter other parties from engaging in similar wrongful conduct.
The Standard for Punitive Damages
In general, knowingly disregarding the safety of another person may constitute malicious or wanton behavior in a product liability case. The plaintiff can show that the defendant knew or should have known that his actions would likely have dangerous consequences, including serious injury or death. In California, a court can award punitive damages when the plaintiff can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has committed oppression, fraud or malice. Malice is conduct that willfully ignores the safety and rights of users. Oppression consists of actions that cause extreme hardship to another person without taking into account the party’s rights. Finally, fraud is the misrepresentation of a material fact by the defendant with the intent to cause injury to another person.
Factors that are Persuasive in Awarding Punitive Damages
California courts are more likely to award punitive damages in product liability cases when certain circumstances exist, such as: the manufacturer knowingly marketed a defective product, a manufacturer intentionally did not perform tests to validate the product’s safety, or a manufacturer did not reveal known dangers related to the product. A larger, more profitable defendant that engages in particularly offensive conduct and fails to respond to consumer complaints is also more likely to be ordered to pay punitive damages.
California Courts Award Punitive Damages in Automobile Product Liability Cases
California courts may be especially willing to award punitive damages in product liability actions involving auto manufacturers. In Hasson v. Ford Motor Company, 650 P.2d 1171, 32 Cal. 3d 388 (Cal. 1982), the plaintiff incurred injuries when the brakes of his car did not operate properly. The brake defect was a result of vaporization of brake fluid, an issue that could have been easily redressed had the manufacturer warned dealers and users to regularly replace the brake fluid. The manufacturer also could have implemented a safer design with a dual master cylinder. Given that the manufacturer was aware of this problem and failed to take either precautionary measure, a California Court awarded punitive damages to the plaintiff.
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