California Court of Appeal, Second District, Sixth Division
[REVIEW GRANTED BY CAL. SUPREME COURT]
[As Modified on Denial of Rehearing
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Cal.Rptr.3d 71] Superior Court County of Santa Barbara,
Thomas P. Anderle, Judge (Super. Ct. No. 18CV02968)
Heft, Lee H. Roistacher, Robert W. Brockman, Jr., Solana
Beach, CA, and Garrett A. Marshall, for Petitioner.
appearance for Respondent.
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.
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, 98
Cal.Rptr.2d 1, 3 P.3d 286 (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, 32
Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441.)
split decision, our colleagues in the Third Appellate
District rejected this principle in the context of Health and
Safety Code  sections 13009 and 13009.1.
(Department of Forestry & Fire Protection v. Howell
(2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 154, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727
(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. ( [255
Cal.Rptr.3d 72] Id. at pp. 175-182, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d
727.) Justice Robie disagreed, concluding that sections 13009
and 13009.1 do permit vicarious corporate liability. (Id. at
pp. 204-208, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727 (dis. opn. of Robie, J.).)
agree with Justice Robie.
Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) sued
Presbyterian Camp and Conference Centers (PCCC) to recover
costs arising from a fire allegedly started by a PCCC
employee. PCCC demurred, arguing that Howell
precludes liability. The trial court disagreed, and overruled
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 an alleged employee’s negligent or
illegal acts. We disagree, and deny the petition.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727.
involved the Moonlight Fire that burned 65,000 acres in
Plumas County. (Howell, supra, 18 Cal.App.5th at p.
162, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727.) 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, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727.) 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.)
sued the two workers for the costs of suppressing and
investigating the resulting fire. (Howell, supra, 18
Cal.App.5th at pp. 162-163, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727.) 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, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d
727.) The trial court granted motions dismissing the property
owners, property manager, and timber purchaser from the case.
(Id. at p. 165, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727.) 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, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d 727.) Only
CalFire’s claims against the workers and their employer [255
Cal.Rptr.3d 73] remained. (Id. at p. 176, 226 Cal.Rptr.3d
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.
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.