I was riding my road bike through the canyons and some careless motorist hit me, can I sue for punitive damages?
Not every case calls for punitive damages. However, a skilled attorney might be able to allege a basis where punitive damages could be imposed by a jury if the case went to trial, based on the particular facts of the case.
Generally stated, compensatory damages compensate the victim (“plaintiff”) for physical, emotional, economic and related damages and injuries. Punitive damages are imposed in addition to compensatory damages to punish the wrongdoer. In California, punitive damages may be imposed after liability is determined if the jury wants to punish the tortious wrongdoer where the plaintiff proved by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant engaged in conduct with malice, oppression, or fraud. Civil Code § 3294. “Punitive damages should only be awarded if the defendant’s culpability, after having paid compensatory damages, is so reprehensible as to warrant the imposition of further sanctions to achieve punishment or deterrence.” Izell v. Union Carbide Corp. (2014) 231 Cal. App. 4th 962, 985.
Causes of Cycling Accidents
Cycling accidents can result in monetary recovery for injured cyclists in a myriad of ways, some of which may not initially seem apparent. Causes of cycling accidents involving motor vehicles may include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Cyclist collisions based on failure to see the other cyclist due to inattention, distraction or intoxication;
- Hit and run accidents;
- Drivers opening doors in the path of oncoming bicycles;
- Vehicles merging into bike lanes;
- Vehicles turning directly in front of a moving bicycle; and
- Collisions occurring at intersections with inadequate lighting or signage.
When Can Punitive Damages Be Imposed?
Punitive damages can be imposed only if the plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that the wrongdoer engaged in that conduct with malice, oppression, or fraud. California has set forth these elements in civil jury instructions. CACI 3941
“Malice” means that the wrongdoer acted with intent to cause injury, acted in a despicable manner and or acted with a willful and knowing disregard of the rights or safety of another. A person acts with knowing disregard when he or she is aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his or her conduct and deliberately fails to avoid those consequences.
“Oppression” means that the wrongdoer’s conduct was despicable and subjected the injured party to cruel and unjust hardship in knowing disregard of his/her rights. Despicable conduct is conduct that is so vile, base, or contemptible that it would be looked down on and despised by reasonable people.
“Fraud” means that the wrongdoer intentionally misrepresented or concealed a material fact and did so intending to harm the victim/plaintiff.
Punitive damages cannot be imposed on a government entity.
Factors Which Could Lead to the Imposition of Punitive Damages in a Cycling Case
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) has both discretionary (imposed by the department) and mandatory (required by law) ability to impose restrictions on California drivers after certain findings are made. (Vehicle Code §§ 12812, 12813, and 13800.)
Reasons for restrictions include prior accidents resulting in a DMV determination of unfitness to drive, prior reckless driving, prior driving under the influence convictions or declining physical conditions, such as vision. These DMV restrictions may be set forth in a DMV-issued document called a Special Instruction Permit.
Restrictions may include:
- Limiting when and where a person may drive,
- Requiring the driver to have another licensed driver (of a certain age) in the car;
- Requiring eye glasses, corrective contact lenses, or other physical devices such as leg or arm prosthetics; or
- Requiring the driver to place special mechanical devices on his/her vehicle, such as to detect the presence or absence of alcohol on one’s breath.
A driver who causes a collision resulting in injury to another could be found liable for punitive damages if the collision was caused (or contributed to) by one of the following scenarios:
- The wrongful driver knowingly drove in violation of DMV restrictions;
- The wrongful driver knowingly drove without corrective lenses;
- The wrongful driver had imbibed alcoholic beverages knowing that he or she would thereafter have to drive; and/or
- The wrongful driver had ingested medication (prescription or otherwise) knowing that they would cause drowsiness or other impairment knowing that he or she would thereafter have to drive.
The Drexler Law Firm was able to allege punitive damages in a road bicycling case where the wrongful motorist previously had her license suspended because the DMV deemed her unsafe to drive. Thereafter, that same motorist drove in violation of the restrictions in the Special Instruction Permit, and struck a road cyclist (“roadie”). David Drexler was able to obtain the DMV restrictions and use said evidence, along with other evidence obtained rough discovery, to cross-examine the motorist during deposition to obtain incriminating admissions which could have supported an award of punitive damages.
How Much Can Be Awarded For Punitive Damages?
There is no fixed standard for determining the amount of punitive damages, and a jury is not required to award any punitive damages whatsoever. If a jury decides to award punitive damages, it will be instructed to consider the following in determining the amount:
- How reprehensible was the wrongful driver’s conduct;
- There relationship between the amount of punitive damages and the resulting harm; and
- the wrongful driver’s financial condition and the amount necessary to punish and discourage future wrongful conduct.
The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. This blog is not intended to, and does not, create an attorney client relationship, an offer of employment or a guarantee of success for clients of The Drexler Law firm. No information or representation contained in this post should be construed as an offer of employment, guarantee of success or the creation of an attorney client relationship with The Drexler Law firm, nor as legal advice from The Drexler Law Firm or the individual author. No reader of this post should act, or refrain from acting, on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer in the corresponding jurisdiction. There are time deadlines during which a case must be brought, according to your jurisdiction or state, and failing to abide by the jurisdictional statute of limitation rules can resul