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Punitive Damages in California Asbestos Lawsuits

Unlike special and general damages which are awarded to the plaintiff to cover and compensate loss, punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant's conduct and deter repeat behavior and similar conduct by others. California allows plaintiffs to recover punitive damages in court if they can prove the defendant was guilty of "oppression, fraud, and malice".

The standard for finding "fraud, oppression or malice" is by clear and convincing evidence. Malice is the willingness (intent) of the defendant to "vex, harass, annoy or injure." In some cases, the evil motive or intent can be shown by direct evidence. Other times it is shown through facts and circumstances by which the jury can make legitimate inferences. If the inferences are really strong, they become “conclusive presumptions.” If the conduct doesn't rate as malice, then the plaintiff must prove the defendant’s conduct was either fraudulent or oppressive. 

Punitive damages are almost always sought in asbestos lawsuits. Asbestos, a naturally occurring yet carcinogenic mineral, was used in thousands of commercial and industrial products for over a century. The dangers of exposure to asbestos became more widely known to the general public around the 1960s, yet scientists were informing manufacturers of asbestos containing products of the high risk of developing mesothelioma, cancer and other asbestos related diseases as early as the 1930s. Therefore, it is asserted that manufacturers knew or should have known of the dangers of asbestos and yet failed to warn and failed to prevent or protect workers from exposure. This knowledge and yet concealment of the risks and negligence in warning or protecting qualifies plaintiffs to sue manufacturing companies for punitive damages.

Another requirement is that the jury must first award actual damages before they can decide on punitive damages. The Court has the power to overturn an award of punitive damages if it was the result of passion or prejudice of the jury. Sometimes the Court will also overturn or reduce the award if it is deemed to be grossly excessive.