California Court of Appeals, Second District, Sixth Division
Superior Court County of Santa Barbara No. 18CV02968 Thomas
P. Anderle, Judge.
& Heft, Lee H. Roistacher, Robert W. Brockman, Jr, . 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.
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.)
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 (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.).)
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 started by a PCCC employee. PCCC
demurred, arguing that Howell precludes liability.
The trial court disagreed, and overruled the demurrer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.'