In Presbyterian Camp and Conference Centers, Inc. v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court today holds that a corporate property owner might have to reimburse the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for about $12,200,000 in costs CalFire incurred fighting the 2016 Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County.  Horvitz & Levy represented the petitioner in the Supreme Court.

The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Joshua Groban concludes that two statutes “incorporate the common law theory of respondeat superior.”  Under that theory, the court says, a corporate property owner “can be held vicariously liable for the cost of suppressing fires that its agents or employees negligently or unlawfully set or allowed to escape.”

The petitioner argued 1971 amendments of one of the statutes eliminated vicarious liability for fire suppression costs based on respondeat superior, leaving corporations only directly liable for the expense of suppressing fires caused by the authorized or ratified acts of its agents or employees, or by its failures to act.  The court finds, however, that such a “significant[ ] curtail[ment] [of] corporate liability . . . would be in tension with the Legislature’s intent of imposing liability for fire suppression costs onto corporations.”

The court affirms the Second District, Division Six, Court of Appeal’s published opinion.  It disapproves a 2-1 Third District 2017 decision.  The Second District agreed with the Third District dissent.