Presbyterian Camp & Conference Ctrs. v. The Superior Court, S259850

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Writing for the CourtGROBAN, J.
Decision Date27 December 2021
PartiesPRESBYTERIAN CAMP AND CONFERENCECENTERS, INC., Petitioner, v. THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Respondent; DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION, Real Party in Interest.
Docket NumberS259850

PRESBYTERIAN CAMP AND CONFERENCECENTERS, INC., Petitioner,
v.

THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Respondent;

DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION, Real Party in Interest.

S259850

Supreme Court of California

December 27, 2021


Second Appellate District, Division Six B297195

Santa Barbara County Superior Court 18CV02968

Daley & Heft, Lee H. Roistacher; Brockman Quayle Bennett, Robert W. Brockman, Jr., Garrett A. Marshall; Horvitz & Levy, Beth J. Jay, H. Thomas Watson and Daniel J. Gonzalez for Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Xavier Becerra and Rob Bonta, Attorneys General, Michael J. Mongan, State Solicitor General, Janill L. Richards, Principal Deputy State Solicitor General, Robert W. Bryne, Assistant Attorney General, Samuel T. Harbourt, Deputy State Solicitor General, Gary E. Tavetian, Ross Hirsch, Jessica Barclay-Strobel and Caitlan McLoon, Deputy Attorneys General, and Kristin A. Liska, Associate Deputy State Solicitor General, for Real Party in Interest.

Downey Brand, William R. Warne, Michael J. Thomas, Annie S. Amaral and Meghan M. Baker for Sierra Pacific Industries and California Forestry Association as Amici Curiae.

OPINION

GROBAN, J.

In June 2016, a wildfire burned nearly 7, 500 acres of land across Santa Barbara County. Federal, state, and local authorities dispatched over 2, 000 fire fighters to battle the blaze (designated the Sherpa Fire) and to protect the people and property it jeopardized. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) spent over $12 million suppressing the fire, investigating the fire's cause, and pursuing reimbursement for the expenses it incurred in doing so. CalFire ultimately determined the Sherpa Fire had started on the property of Presbyterian Camp and Conference Centers, Inc. (Presbyterian), when Presbyterian's employee removed a smoldering log from a malfunctioning fireplace in one of Presbyterian's cabins.

Under Health and Safety Code[1] sections 13009 and 13009.1, which permit recovery of expenses from "[a]ny person . . . who negligently . . . sets a fire, allows a fire to be set, or allows a fire kindled or attended by him or her to escape," CalFire sought recovery of its expenses from Presbyterian. Presbyterian demurred, arguing that sections 13009 and 13009.1 do not contemplate vicarious liability and asserting

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that - because the fire was not started by an employee's authorized or ratified act or by Presbyterian's failure to act - there was no basis to impose direct liability. The trial court overruled the demurrer, and the Court of Appeal denied Presbyterian's writ petition challenging the trial court's order. (Presbyterian Camp & Conference Centers, Inc. v. Superior Court (2019) 42 Cal.App.5th 148, 152 (Presbyterian).)

The question before us is whether a corporation like Presbyterian can be held vicariously liable for the cost of suppressing fires that its agents or employees negligently or unlawfully set or allowed to escape. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal, although our holding answers a narrower question than the one originally presented; we hold that sections 13009 and 13009.1 incorporate the common law theory of respondeat superior. As the parties focused their briefing on this theory and did not comprehensively address other types of vicarious liability, we do not reach the incorporation of vicarious liability generally.[2]

I.

A.

In 2016, Presbyterian owned property in rural Santa Barbara County, which it operated as Rancho La Sherpa and

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used to host camps and conferences.[3] Presbyterian employed Charles Cook to reside at Rancho La Sherpa and oversee its operations.

On June 15, 2016, a fire in the fireplace of one of the Rancho La Sherpa cabins began to fill the cabin with smoke because of a chimney malfunction. In response to the smoke, Cook transported a smoldering log from the cabin's fireplace to an outdoor firepit. Burning embers from the log fell onto the dry vegetation surrounding the cabin and ignited a fire. That fire - the Sherpa Fire - spread rapidly to neighboring properties. Based on its investigation of how the fire began, CalFire concluded that numerous forms of negligence and misdemeanor fire safety violations contributed to the ignition and uncontrolled spread of the fire. These included the kindling of a fire in a malfunctioning fireplace, the failure to adequately maintain that fireplace, the transporting of a smoldering log over dry vegetation, the failure to clear vegetation within 100 feet of the cabins, the failure to provide smoke detectors, and the failure to provide fire extinguishers or adequate water sources.

By the time authorities managed to fully contain and extinguish the Sherpa Fire a month later, it had consumed 7, 474 acres of vegetation and destroyed one structure. CalFire incurred about $12.2 million in costs relating to suppressing the Sherpa Fire, including investigation and administrative expenses.

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B.

The dispute in this case centers around the chapter of the Health and Safety Code entitled "Liability in Relation to Fires." As is relevant here, sections 13007 through 13009.1 of that chapter provide for civil liability relating to fires: sections 13007 and 13008 impose liability for damages caused by fires, while section 13009 permits recovery of the costs of fire suppression, and section 13009.1 permits recovery of investigation and accounting costs related to the recovery of funds under section 13009. More specifically, section 13007 provides: "Any person who personally or through another wilfully, negligently, or in violation of law, sets fire to, allows fire to be set to, or allows a fire kindled or attended by him to escape to, the property of another, whether privately or publicly owned, is liable to the owner of such property for any damages to the property caused by the fire."

Section 13008 provides: "Any person who allows any fire burning upon his property to escape to the property of another, whether privately or publicly owned, without exercising due diligence to control such fire, is liable to the owner of such property for the damages to the property caused by the fire."

In relevant part, section 13009 provides: "Any person . . . who negligently, or in violation of the law, sets a fire, allows a fire to be set, or allows a fire kindled or attended by him or her to escape onto any public or private property, . . . is liable for the fire suppression costs incurred in fighting the fire and for the cost of providing rescue or emergency medical services, and those costs shall be a charge against that person. The charge shall constitute a debt of that person, and is collectible by the person, or by the federal, state, county, public, or private agency,

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incurring those costs in the same manner as in the case of an obligation under a contract, expressed or implied."

Finally, section 13009.1 makes "[a]ny person . . . who negligently, or in violation of the law, sets a fire, allows a fire to be set, or allows a fire kindled or attended by him or her to escape onto any public or private property" liable for "[t]he cost of investigating and making any reports with respect to the fire" and "[t]he costs relating to accounting for that fire and the collection of any funds pursuant to Section 13009, including, but not limited to, the administrative costs of operating a fire suppression cost recovery program." (§ 13009.1, subd. (a)(1), (2).)

Sections 13007 and 13008 were last amended in 1953, when the fire liability laws were moved from the Civil Code into the Health and Safety Code. Section 13009, by contrast, has been amended several times since then, most notably - for purposes of our analysis today - in 1971.[4] Prior to 1971, section 13009 cross-referenced both sections 13007 and 13008, making liable for the costs of fire suppression any person liable for damages under those sections. (See Stats. 1953, ch. 48, § 3, p. 682 ["The expenses of fighting any fires mentioned in Sections 13007 and 13008 are a charge against any person made liable by those sections"].) The 1971 amendment to section 13009 (1971 amendment) replaced the cross-reference to sections 13007 and 13008 with new standalone language that duplicated some, but not all, of the terms of section 13007. (See Assem. Bill No. 1247 (1971 Reg. Sess.) § 1; Stats. 1971, ch. 1202, § 1, p. 2297

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["Any person who negligently, or in violation of the law, sets a fire, allows a fire to be set, or allows a fire kindled or attended by him to escape onto any forest"].) As described below, this case turns on the meaning of those changes: Presbyterian argues that the deletion of the cross-reference to section 13007 and 13008 (together with the fact that the phrase "personally or through another" was not replicated in the amended version of section 13009) implicitly eliminated respondeat superior liability. CalFire argues that it did not.

C.

In the aftermath of the Sherpa Fire, CalFire filed a lawsuit against Presbyterian, Cook, and unnamed Doe defendants, seeking recovery of CalFire's fires suppression and investigation costs pursuant to Health and Safety Code sections 13009 and 13009.1. Presbyterian demurred, relying on Department of Forestry & Fire Protection v. Howell (2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 154 (Howell) for the proposition that it could not be held liable for a fire indisputably started by Cook and asserting that there was no basis to impose direct liability on the corporation. Presbyterian asserted that CalFire could seek cost recovery only from Cook, the individual employee who carried the smoldering log outside. The trial court overruled the demurrer, distinguishing Howell as having disallowed vicarious liability only where such liability would have been premised upon the actions of independent contractors; the court concluded Howell did not reach the issue of...

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