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California Civil Code section 3294 authorizes the award of punitive damages where malice fraud or oppression is shown. Punitive damages are not available in ordinary breach of contract cases.

Entitlement to punitive damages must be demonstrated by “clear and convincing evidence,” which is a higher standard than the usual “preponderance of the evidence” standard that applies to most civil legal issues.

These damages are intended to make a public example of the party against whom they are awarded, and are not necessarily related to the actual damages suffered by the plaintiff.

Cases involving fraud, intentional injury, abuse of trust, or other facts that would tend to “shock the conscience” will give rise to a claim for punitive damages.

While fraud and intentional conduct inherently invite a claim for exemplary damages, the violation of a statute might also support a claim for pinitives. See Civil Code § 3294(a); Taylor v. Superior Ct. (Stille) (1979) 24 Cal.3d 890, 895?896, 157 CR 693, 696; Peterson v. Superior Ct. (Thompson) (1982) 31 Cal.3d 147, 181 CR 784 [cases involving reckless driving while under the influence of alcohol].

The amount to be awarded as punitive damages depends largely on the facts and the economic condition of the wrongdoer, and often requires additional proceedings after the trier of fact determines that punitive damages are appropriate.


Generally, recklessness or gross negligence is not enough to warrant an award of punitive damages unless it can be shown that the wrongdoer completely disregarded the rights of the injured party.

Reckless or extremely careless conduct, even if not intentional, may give rise to a claim for punitive damages if it is “despicable,” and engaged in with a “willful and conscious disregard” for plaintiff’s rights. See American Airlines, Inc. v. Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 1017, 1050, 117 CR2d 685, 710 [stating that the term “despicable” suggests “the character of outrage frequently associated with crime”].


When the harm is caused intentionally, punitive damages will almost always be available.