Previous posts here have either mentioned punitive damages or have reported on juries awarding punitive damages. Indeed, there are some circumstances that seem to suggest that just paying someone compensation for their losses simply is not enough. For example, car accidents that are caused by a drunk driver, a driver who is going far in excess of the posted speed limit or a driver acting in a fit of road rage are situations that are entirely avoidable. To prevent these sorts of accidents, a driver need only show a minimal amount of courtesy and care for their fellow motorists.
As the name implies, punitive damages, which some may also call exemplary damages, serve to punish drivers who have gone beyond simple carelessness and have actively disregarded the rights of those with whom they share the road.
In order to get punitive damages, an injured victim must prove the case by what is called "clear and convincing evidence." This is a higher standard of proof than what is common in car accident cases, and it exists because California courts are only supposed to impose punitive damages from time to time, when the circumstances really call for them.
Punitive damages are not going to be a viable option in every accident case, even if the victim was seriously hurt or even died. Simply running a stop sign, for example, without aggravating circumstances, will likely not result in punitive damages. However, a drunk driver or a driver who behaved in an especially reckless or aggressive manner may be susceptible to an award of punitive damages.