The issue that concerns this case is those of vicarious liability (respondeat superior) on the part of the employer for torts committed by the employee. The doctrine of respondeat superior is a form of strict liability since it does not regard the mens rea of the employer to be important but holds the employer liable if the employee was acting in the course of his business or be involved in a risk that may be regarded as typical or broadly incidental to the enterprise undertaken by the employer.
Thorn was the owner of Spa City which was set alight by the accused arsonist who entered the premises in his authority as the fire marshal. The City of Glendale was sued since the fire department is a public entity and is government funded. The Court of Appeal’s decision went in favor of the City of Glendale because it did not satisfy the principles of respondeat superior which state that the employee’s negligence should be in the course of business he was there to conduct. What that means is that as long as the fire marshal was acting in accordance of his typical duties or duties broadly incidental to the enterprise undertaken by the fire department, his negligence should immediately hold the City of Glendale liable. In this case, the marshal sought to enter the premises on the basis of his uniform and was granted permission only as a result of his authority as an employee of the fire department. However, his act of arson was not in negligent undertaking of his typical duties but seemingly more an act of compulsion on his part, which may or may not have been merely adventurous on his part or as a result of a chemical imbalance in his brain. It was a criminal act and the liability should be felonious to be undertaken by the marshal himself. As such, the Court of Appeal was right in its decision of upholding the judgment made in favor of the City (Thorn v City of Glendale 1994).
However, the charges included negligent supervision which is a separate charge in itself as opposed to liability under respondeat superior. Instead of negligent supervision, the City may have been liable for negligently hiring or retaining the services of the marshal if he did indeed have a record of compulsive behavior or a chemical imbalance that was declared at the time of his selection. Since the facts are silent on that aspect, it falls to the determination of further details whether that was the case. The Court of Appeal’s judgment and reasoning otherwise, in my opinion, is correct.
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