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The common law theory of respondeat superior; therefore, CalFire can pursue claims against private entities to recover the taxpayer dollars spent on fighting and investigating wildfires caused by the negligence of an entity’s employee

California

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USA

Companies Can Be Sued to Recover the Taxpayer Dollars Spent on Fighting and Investigating Wildfires Caused by the Negligence of Their Employees In Presbyterian Camp & Conference Centers v. Superior Court, S259850 (Cal. December 27, 2021), CalFire sought to recover the costs of fighting and investigating a wildfire that was caused by the negligence of an employee of Presbyterian Camp & Conference Centers (“Presbyterian”) directly from Presbyterian. Presbyterian demurred and argued that Cal. Health & Saf. Code §§ 13009 and 13009.1 do not contemplate vicarious liability and that they could not be held directly liable because the fire was not started by an employee’s authorized or ratified act or by Presbyterian’s failure to act. The trial court overruled the demurrer and the Court of Appeal denied Presbyterian’s writ petition challenging the trial court’s order. Cal. Health & Saf. Code §§ 13009 and 13009.1 incorporate the common law theory of respondeat superior Under the theory of respondeat superior, an employer may be held vicariously liable for the torts committed by an employee within the scope of employment. The Supreme Court of California noted that the doctrine has a long history, particularly in fire liability cases, and thus it would not be appropriate to read respondeat superior out of Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 13009 unless the Legislature had expressed a clear intent to abrogate this common law doctrine. There was no clear and unequivocal intent by the legislature to eliminate respondeat superior liability from Cal. Health & Safety Code § 13009 Presbyterian argued that by eliminating a cross-reference to Cal. Health & Safety Code § 13007, the Legislature eliminated respondeat superior liability for fire suppression costs under Cal. Health & Saf. Code §§ 13009 and 13009.1. The Court found that the deletion of a cross-reference to Cal. Health & Safety Code § 13007, which contains the phrase “through another,” which is not a term that refers to the theory of respondeat superior, did not manifest a clear and unequivocal intent to abrogate more than a century of common law tort principles. Respondeat superior liability is consistent with the legislative purpose of Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 13009 The Court explained that two central goals of Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 13009 were: (1) to reimburse governmental agencies for the cost of firefighting; and (2) to stimulate precautionary measures aimed at preventing the starting and spreading of fire.Respondeat superior liability is consistent with these goals as it is one of the primary forms of corporate liability for negligence and imposition of liability will give employers greater incentives to take measures to prevent employee negligence that may start wildfires. Disposition The Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and held that Cal. Health & Saf. Code §§ 13009 and 13009.1 incorporate the common law theory of respondeat superior.

April 14, 2022
Presbyterian Camp & Conference Centers v. Superior Court, S259850 (Cal. December 27, 2021)
California Courts