Say you are awarded $3,000 in compensatory damages, and the judge feels like treble damages would be appropriate for the specific facts of a case.


  1. Is the judge permitted to act in that conscience and award a total of $12,000 ($3K + $9K) while the jurisdictional limit would only permit $10,000 tops? Or will that rule kick in, and the award would be capped at $10,000?

  2. Is there any binding precedent of punitive damages being awarded in small claims court in California? Or if there isn't, should that mean the same rules apply as though it was in a normal court?

Although I am personally more interested in California's regulation, if there are applicable answers to this question elsewhere, I would also be glad to read!


Since the rules I found seemingly governing this do no mention punitive damages at all, I hope something like this was decided on appeals at one point, and there is precedent on this. I only found secondary literature from two websites one probably a law firm stating it is possible.

Additional findings I had is now in an answer I added to my question as indication.

  • In most jurisdictions, small claims courts can’t award punitive damages. I don’t know about Ca specifically
    – Dale M
    Jan 30, 2022 at 1:46
  • That's likely indicative of the probability of California, too! I went ahead, and did some more research so I will add my findings.
    – smallball
    Jan 30, 2022 at 3:32

2 Answers 2


Question 1:

Some of the more recent questions from December 2016 on this on Avvo.com replying to a question on Los Angeles Small Claims courts: "[T]he likelihood of any small claims judge in LA awarding them to you is slim."

And another answer: "Yes you can if the claim is $10K or less."

Another California lawyer on Avvo in 2013 replying to a San Francisco, CA question: "I have seen cases where punitive damages have been awarded in small claims court. You can always request and try to offer evidence that you feel warrants such a finding" (one additional lawyer agrees)

And another licensed in California to the same question: "Punitive damages are available in Small Claims [but] if you do not ask for it, it cannot be awarded."

Another one from 2010 to another question: "You can, up to a maximum claim of $7,500. Punitive damages are based on the net wealth of the defendant, so normally litigants don't request any amount, since the amount depends on the defendant's financial disclosures."

Question 2:

In Indiana: "If punitive damages are awarded, the TOTAL of all monetary damages CANNOT exceed the Small Claims Court's jurisdictional MAXIMUM award"

According to another attorney in California from March, 2019: "You can sue for up to $10,000.00 in small claims, and pray for punitive damages up to that amount."

So, attorneys in California seem to agree that punitive damages may be awarded in Small Claims court in California if:

  1. You ask for punitive damages, and ask for them timely up to no more than the jurisdictional limit, and probably without stating an exact amount;
  2. Serve the claim as required for the court on the other party;
  3. If you can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the conduct was despicable, fraudulent, oppressive malicious or outrageous;
  4. If you can prove the net worth of the defendant which could warrant the award.
  • 1
    I would prefer someone more capable actually giving an answer based on primary sources, but let this be here if that didn't happen.
    – smallball
    Jan 30, 2022 at 5:03

By choosing to file a claim in small claims court you are waiving any right to recover an amount in excess of the jurisdictional limit of the court. So, the total award, including both compensatory and punitive damages, must be less than the limit for small claims. But, this does not preclude, per se, an award of any punitive damages by the small claims court judge.

From your perspective as a plaintiff, this is a pretty modest point.

From the point of view of the defendant, this is huge. It is huge because, generally speaking, all facts necessarily decided against a party in a small claims court case on the merits are binding against the same party in a lawsuit from a plaintiff unrelated to you, under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

For example, suppose that you win a lawsuit against a major online retailer holding that something it said in a standard disclosure used in hundreds of purchases was intentionally fraudulent and caused you $1,000 of harm, and that the judge in your case awarded you $2,000 in punitive damages that you suffered as a result in addition to your compensatory damages. Anyone else who later sued the online retailer based upon that fraudulent standard disclosure who referenced your case would no longer have to show that the disclosure was fraudulent, just that they suffered harm due to it. If they could show damages caused by that disclosure, they would automatically win and be entitled (if they jumped through the right procedural hoops) to punitive damages.

Your case could even be invoked in a future class action lawsuit against that retailer.

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