Punitive damages are meant to serve two purposes: punish the defendant for the conduct at issue in the lawsuit and deter similar conduct in the future. But, sometimes a punitive damages award goes beyond serving these two purposes and moves into the territory of violating the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 14th Amendment, through the Due Process Clause, prohibits the imposition of grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments.
Punitive damages are allowed in California under California Civil Code section 3294(a), which states “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.” Although California law does not define “clear and convincing evidence”, it carries a higher burden of proof than “preponderance of the evidence,” which is the burden of proof necessary to prevail in a civil lawsuit. In determining whether to award punitive damages, the jury considers: (1) the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; (2) whether there is a reasonable relationship between the amount of punitive damages and the plaintiff’s harm; and (3) what amount will punish the defendant and discourage similar future conduct. In determining this amount, the jury considers the defendant’s financial condition. In California, there is no official cap on punitive damages.