Generally, under California law, punitive damages are only available if there is an evidence that the conduct of the party at fault was either intentional and malicious or in conscious disregard for the consequences. As such, punitive damages are not available in the vast majority of injury accidents which are caused by ordinary negligence of a driver or another party that should have exercised greater care in acting in a safe manner.
This means that punitive damages may be available against a driver who causes an accident intentionally or is motivated by some kind of ill will when acting carelessly on the road. Recently, I represented a person who was injured by another driver who was deliberately chasing him after being "cut" on the road by my client, caught up with him and broadsided my client, causing him severe injuries and mild brain trauma.
The opposing counsel, defending the insurance company of the driver at fault, didn't seriously contest my argument that the defendant, in addition to paying for the typical accident damages (medical expenses, wage loss, pain and suffering, emotional distress, etc.) should be liable for punitive damages.