Legal Memorandum: Recovery of Punitive Damages in CA

Issue: Under California law, what is required to plead a successful cause of action for which punitive damages may be recovered?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Punitive damages; Cause of action
Jurisdiction: California
Cited Cases: 102 Cal. Rptr. 815; 141 Cal. Rptr. 200; 49 Cal. App. 3d 22; 135 Cal. Rptr. 246
Cited Statutes: Cal. Civ. Code § 3294(a), § 3294(c)
Date: 02/01/2001

           Punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer, not to compensate the plaintiff.  Still, no other source of damages has been so often abused; no other item of damages has received so much attention from the courts and legislature in efforts to curb the abuses of its damages.  Because punitive damages are not allowed in contract actions, plaintiffs frequently allege tort actions against a defendant merely as a vehicle to obtain not tort damages, but windfall damages.

The standard of pleading and proof required for an award of punitive damages is set forth by statute: 

(a) In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, 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.


Cal. Civ. Code § 3294(a) (Supp. 1992). 

Oppression, fraud and malice are all specifically defined:

(1)        "Malice" means […]

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