Punitive Damages Intentional Torts California

The court in Nolin v. National Convenience Stores, Inc. (1979) addressed the question whether evidence of a "willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others" was sufficient to uphold an award of punitive damages in an action for negligence not alleging an intentional tort. The court started with the general rule that "conduct classified only as unintentional carelessness, while it may constitute negligence or even gross negligence, will not support an award of punitive damages." (95 Cal. App. 3d at pp. 285-286.) However, the Nolin court noted the California Supreme Court in Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co. (1941) 18 Cal. 2d 863, 118 P.2d 465 had long ago acknowledged negligent conduct amounting to wanton and reckless misconduct could in certain factual situations warrant punitive damages. According to the Donnelly court, "A tort having some of the characteristics of both negligence and willfulness occurs when a person with no intent to cause harm intentionally performs an act so unreasonable and dangerous that he knows, or should know, it is highly probable that harm will result. Such a tort . . . is most accurately designated as wanton and reckless misconduct. It involves no intention, as does willful misconduct, to do harm, and it differs from negligence in that it does involve an intention to perform an act that the actor knows, or should know, will very probably cause harm. Wanton and reckless misconduct is more closely akin to willful misconduct than to negligence, and it has most of the legal consequences of willful misconduct. Thus, it justifies an award of punitive damages, . . . " (Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co., supra, 18 Cal. 2d 863, 869-870.) The Nolin court compared the Donnelly court's phrase of "wanton and reckless misconduct" with other courts' similar descriptions of conduct warranting punitive damages, including conduct demonstrating "a conscious disregard of the plaintiff's rights" ( Silberg v. California Life Ins. Co. (1974) 11 Cal. 3d 452, 462, 113 Cal. Rptr. 711, 521 P.2d 1103), a "conscious disregard of the safety of others" ( G.D. Searle & Co. v. Superior Court (1975) 49 Cal. App. 3d 22, 32, 122 Cal. Rptr. 218), and conduct evidencing an "evil motive" ( Davis v. Hearst (1911) 160 Cal. 143, 163, 116 P. 530). The Nolin court concluded the various formulations all accurately defined the type of "malice" necessary for an award of punitive damages for an unintentional tort. As explained by the Nolin court "they all have the same meaning in announcing a rule of law that authorizes an award of punitive damages for a nonintentional tort where defendant's conduct which causes injury is of such severity or shocking character that it warrants the same treatment as that accorded to willful misconduct--conduct in which the defendant intends to cause harm." (95 Cal. App. 3d at p. 286.)