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Presbyterian Camp And Conference Centers, Inc. v. Superior Court (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Sixth Division

November 18, 2019

PRESBYTERIAN CAMP AND CONFERENCE CENTERS, INC., Petitioner,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Respondent CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION, Real Party in Interest.

          Superior Court County of Santa Barbara No. 18CV02968 Thomas P. Anderle, Judge.

          Daley & Heft, Lee H. Roistacher, Robert W. Brockman, Jr, . and Garrett A. Marshall, for Petitioner.

          No appearance for Respondent.

          Xavier Becerra, Attorney General, Robert W. Bryne, Assistant Attorney General, Gary E. Tavetian, Ross Hirsch, Jessica Barclay-Strobel and Caitlan McLoon, Deputy Attorneys General, for Real Party in Interest.

          TANGEMAN, J.

         The law is replete with legal fictions. Among the best known is that corporations are people, with many of the same rights and responsibilities as natural persons. But corporations cannot act on their own; they “‘necessarily act through agents.' [Citation.]” (Snukal v. Flightways Manufacturing, Inc. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 754, 782 (Snukal).) Thus the law draws “no distinction between [a] corporation's ‘own' liability and vicarious liability resulting from [the] negligence of [its] agents.” (Tunkl v. Regents of University of Cal. (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92, 103.)

         In a split decision, our colleagues in the Third Appellate District rejected this principle in the context of Health and Safety Code[1] sections 13009 and 13009.1. (Department of Forestry & Fire Protection v. Howell (2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 154 (Howell).) The Howell majority concluded that corporations cannot be held liable for the costs of suppressing and investigating fires their agents or employees negligently set, allow to be set, or allow to escape. (Id. at pp. 175-182.) Justice Robie disagreed, concluding that sections 13009 and 13009.1 do permit vicarious corporate liability. (Id. at pp. 204-208 (dis. opn. of Robie, J.).)

         We agree with Justice Robie.

         The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) sued Presbyterian Camp and Conference Centers (PCCC) to recover costs arising from a fire started by a PCCC employee. PCCC demurred, arguing that Howell precludes liability. The trial court disagreed, and overruled the demurrer.

         PCCC challenges the trial court's order in a petition for writ of mandate. It contends the court erroneously overruled its demurrer because sections 13009 and 13009.1 do not permit it to be held liable for its employee's negligent or illegal acts. We disagree, and deny the petition.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         PCCC operates a camp and conference center in rural Santa Barbara County. Its employee, Charles Cook, was responsible for maintaining the camp. In June 2016, a cabin on the property filled with smoke after a chimney malfunctioned. Cook removed a burning log from the fireplace and carried it outside. Embers from the log fell onto dry vegetation, igniting what is now known as the Sherpa Fire.

         The fire spread rapidly, and ultimately burned nearly 7, 500 acres. CalFire spent more than $12 million to fight the fire and investigate its cause. The investigation revealed that PCCC: (1) failed to clear dry vegetation near at least one of its cabins, (2) failed to maintain the chimney that filled the cabin with smoke, and (3) failed to inspect and maintain fire safety devices. These omissions constituted negligence and violated several laws and regulations. Cook's act of carrying a smoldering log over dry vegetation was also negligent and in violation of the law. Together, PCCC's and Cook's acts and omissions caused the Sherpa Fire and contributed to its rapid spread.

         CalFire sued Cook and PCCC to recover fire suppression and investigation costs. (§§ 13009, 13009.1.) PCCC demurred to CalFire's complaint, arguing that it could not be held liable for Cook's actions based on Howell, supra, 18 Cal.App.5th 154.

         Howell involved the Moonlight Fire that burned 65, 000 acres in Plumas County. (Howell, supra, 18 Cal.App.5th at p. 162.) The fire started when a bulldozer struck a rock, causing superheated metal fragments to splinter off and ignite the surrounding vegetation. (Id. at p. 164.) The operator of the bulldozer and his coworker did not timely inspect the area where they had been working, which allowed the fire to spread. (Ibid.)

         CalFire sued the two workers for the costs of suppressing and investigating the resulting fire. (Howell, supra, 18 Cal.App.5th at pp. 162-163.) It also sued the timber harvester that employed the workers, the company that purchased the timber from the harvester/employer, the company that managed the property, and the property owners. (Id. at p. 163.) The trial court granted motions dismissing the property owners, property manager, and timber purchaser from the case. (Id. at p. 165.) It concluded that sections 13009 and 13009.1 did not provide a basis for their liability. (Ibid.) A majority of the Court of Appeal agreed, concluding that the statutes do not provide for vicarious liability. (Id. at p. 182.) Only CalFire's claims against the workers and their employer remained. (Id. at p. 176.)

         The court below determined that Howell did not bar CalFire's claims against PCCC. While Howell concluded that the property owners, property manager, and timber purchaser could not be vicariously liable for the workers' acts, it said nothing about the harvester/employer's liability. Indeed, the harvester/employer remained a defendant in the underlying case. Because CalFire alleged that PCCC was Cook's employer when the Sherpa Fire started, the court concluded that Howell did not apply to the facts of this case. It overruled PCCC's demurrer.

         DISCUSSION

         PCCC argues that the trial court erroneously overruled its demurrer because: (1) a corporation is not a “person” for purposes of sections 13009 and 13009.1, (2) the legislative history of these statutes shows that they do not permit vicarious liability, and (3) permitting such liability would render superfluous language in related fire liability statutes.

         Standard of review

         When a party seeks writ review of a trial court's order overruling a demurrer, “[t]he ‘ordinary standards of demurrer review still apply.'” (Southern California Gas Leak Cases (2019) 7 Cal.5th 391, 398, fn. 3.) We independently determine whether the complaint states a cause of action. (Blank v. Kirwan (1985) 39 Cal.3d 311, 318.) We reasonably interpret the complaint, “reading it as a whole and its parts in their context.” (Ibid.) We deem true “‘all material facts properly pleaded, but not contentions, deductions, or conclusions of fact or law. [Citation.]'” (Ibid.) “‘We also consider matters which may be judicially noticed.' [Citation.]” (Ibid.)

         Rules of ...


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