Acadia Ins. Co. v. United States

Decision Date25 January 2016
Docket NumberCivil Action No. CV-13-S-895-NE
PartiesACADIA INSURANCE CO., Plaintiff, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND FINAL JUDGMENT

This action is based upon the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680 ("FTCA"). The plaintiff's claim arose out of a fire that occurred on September 22, 2010, at the "Country Inn and Suites" in Huntsville, Alabama: a hotel owned and operated by Yedla Management Company, Inc., and Hospitality Enterprises of Huntsville, Inc. The plaintiff, Acadia Insurance Company, is the subrogee of those entities. It contends that the fire was caused by an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who, while lodged as a guest at the hotel, negligently discarded smoking materials on the balcony outside his second-floor hotel suite.

This court conducted a bench trial on January 11, 2016. The United States filed "Motions For Judgment At The Close Of Plaintiff's Evidence And At The Close Of All Of The Evidence."1 See Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(c). The court denied the motionat the close of plaintiff's evidence.2 This opinion addresses the renewed motion at the close of all of the evidence,3 and is based upon consideration of the pleadings, evidence, and briefs of counsel.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(c) provides that:

If a party has been fully heard on an issue during a nonjury trial and the court finds against the party on that issue, the court may enter judgment against the party on a claim or defense that, under the controlling law, can be maintained or defeated only with a favorable finding on that issue. The court may, however, decline to render any judgment until the close of the evidence. A judgment on partial findings must be supported by findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Rule 52(a).4

Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(c).

"A Rule 52(c) motion may be granted if . . . based on the evidence before it, the court finds, after resolving the credibility issues and weighing the evidence, for the defendant." Denson v. United States, 574 F.3d 1318, 1334 n. 48 (11th Cir. 2009). "In addressing a Rule 52(c) motion, the court does not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, as it would in passing on a Rule 56 motion forsummary judgment or a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law; instead, it exercises its role as factfinder." United States v. $242,484.00, 389 F.3d 1149, 1172 (11th Cir. 2004). Under Rule 52(c), "the court must weigh the evidence and may consider the witnesses' credibility." Caro-Galvan v. Curtis Richardson, Inc., 993 F.2d 1500, 1504 (11th Cir. 1993).

IberiaBank v. Coconut 41, LLC, 984 F. Supp. 2d 1283, 1295 (M.D. Fla. 2013), aff'd, 589 F. App'x 479 (11th Cir. 2014).

II. FACTS

Michael Siegling is a resident of California and a Special Agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"). He attended a six-week training course on hazardous devices conducted at Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, from August 10 through September 24, 2010.5 The FBI did not require Siegling to attend the training course, but the instruction furthered Siegling's employment with the FBI by providing him with specialized skills.6 The FBI paid for the course, paid Siegling's salary during his weeks of training, and reimbursed the costs of his travel, lodging, and food.7

Siegling occupied Suite 2207 on the second floor of one wing to the Country Inn and Suites from the date of his arrival in Huntsville through the date of the firethat rendered that wing of the hotel uninhabitable.8 Siegling and the other students in the training course were not required to stay at the Country Inn and Suites, but chose to do so for convenience, because a bus transported the students between the hotel and their training classes on Redstone Arsenal each day.9

Siegling sometimes smoked cigarettes on the balcony outside Suite 2207 in the evenings, after the end of classes, either alone or joined by other students in the training course. He did not recall whether anyone else was present on the balcony or smoked cigarettes with him on September 22, the night of the fire.10 He also did not state, nor was he specifically asked during trial, whether he smoked a cigarette on the balcony on the night of the fire. Siegling maintained a practice of extinguishing his cigarettes in a Styrofoam cup half-filled with water when he smoked on the balcony.11

Siegling testified that he considered himself to be "off-duty" in the evening hours, after each day of training classes was completed, with the exception that he sometimes studied for examinations on course materials in his hotel room during the evening hours.12 Siegling possessed a government-issued credit card to pay for hislodging, but he was not authorized to use that card to purchase cigarettes.13

III. DISCUSSION

The government's Rule 52 motion is primarily based upon two arguments. First, the government asserts that the United States should not be held liable for any damages caused by Agent Siegling because he was not acting within the line and scope of his employment when he discarded cigarettes on the balcony of his hotel suite in the evenings after class. Second, the government argues that, even if it could be held liable for Siegling's negligent acts, those acts did not cause the fire.14

The causation evidence presented at trial was a classic "battle of the experts." The Huntsville Fire Department officer and plaintiff's expert witness who investigated the scene both opined that the fire was caused by smoking materials negligently discarded on the balcony of Suite 2207.15 Defendant's expert witness, in contrast, presented evidence that the methodology employed by plaintiff's witnesses was unreliable, and the investigation conducted by each witness was incomplete.16According to defendant's expert, neither the Fire Department investigator nor plaintiff's expert witness possessed sufficient information to determine the cause of the fire, so they both should have characterized the cause as "undetermined."17 Even so, defendant's expert personally believed that the fire originated on the third-floor balcony above Suite 2207 and "dropped down" to the balcony outside Siegling's second-floor suite.18

Despite alarming deficiencies in the investigations conducted by both the Huntsville Fire Department Investigator and plaintiff's expert witness, this court is inclined to conclude that plaintiff established by a preponderance of the evidence that the fire, more likely than not, was caused by the negligent manner in which Agent Siegling discarded his cigarette butts.

It is not necessary to actually reach that conclusion, however. Even if Agent Siegling was smoking on his balcony on the evening of September 22, 2010, and even if his negligent use of smoking materials did cause the fire, there is no basis in Alabama law for holding the United States liable for Agent Siegling's negligence.

The Federal Tort Claims Act waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees who act within the line and scope of their employment. E.g., Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. v. Meyer, 510U.S. 471, 475 (1994) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)). "The question of whether an employee's conduct was within the scope of his employment 'is governed by the law of the state where the incident occurred.'" Flohr v. Mackovjak, 84 F.3d 386, 390 (11th Cir. 1996) (quoting S.J. & W. Ranch, Inc. v. Lehtinen, 913 F.2d 1538, 1541 (11th Cir. 1990)) (alteration supplied). Here, the fire occurred in Alabama and, thus, the law of that State applies.

The Alabama Supreme Court has repeatedly held that:

The rule which has been approved for determining whether certain conduct of an employee is within the line and scope of his employment is substantially that if an employee is engaged to perform a certain service, whatever he does to that end, or in furtherance of the employment, is deemed by law to be an act done within the scope of the employment.

Nelson v. Johnson, 88 So. 2d 358, 361 (Ala. 1956) (citing Railway Express Agency v. Burns, 225 Ala. 557, 52 So. 2d 177 (1950), and Rochester-Hall Drug Co. v. Bowden, 218 Ala. 242, 118 So. 674 (1928)); see also, e.g., Doe v. Swift, 570 So. 2d 1209, 1211 (Ala. 1990) (same); Solmica of Gulf Coast, Inc. v. Braggs, 232 So. 2d 638, 642 (Ala. 1970) (same). "Such conduct, to come within the rule, must not be impelled by motives that are wholly personal, or to gratify his own feelings or resentment, but should be in promotion of the business of his employment." Rochester-Hall Drug Co. v. Bowden, 118 So. 674 (Ala. 1928); see also Solmica, 232 So. 2d at 642 (same).

Moreover, the fact that "an alleged wrong is committed by the employee during his regular working hours is not dispositive of the question [of] whether the employee was acting within the scope of his employment. . . . Instead, the dispositive question is whether the employee was engaged in an act that he was hired to perform or in conduct that conferred a benefit on his employer." Hulbert v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 723 So. 2d 22, 24 (Ala. 1998) (alteration and emphasis supplied, internal citations omitted).

As this court observed in the memorandum opinion and order denying defendant's motion for summary judgment, "[n]either Alabama courts nor federal courts applying Alabama law have directly addressed whether smoking cigarettes falls within an employee's scope of employment."19 Rather, the relevant caselaw seemed to be best summarized by the opinion in Land v. Shaffer Trucking, Inc., 275 So. 2d 671 (Ala. 1973), stating that:

In cases where the deviation [from the employer's business] is slight and not unusual, the court may, and often will, as a matter of law, determine that the servant was still executing his master's business. So, too, where the deviation is very marked and unusual, the court in like
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