Hot Docs: Firestone sued for its employee torching a transient and his shopping cart

August 18, 2011

Transients on Fire ZoneRuben Sandoval is a 64-year-old military veteran and resident of Garden Grove, California.

He officially lives with his sister, but there are periods of time that he spends as a transient.

During those times, he carries with him a shopping cart that contains all of his possessions, including his clothes, blankets, and food.

On January 2, 2010, Sandoval had his shopping cart parked on a sidewalk near a Firestone location in Santa Ana, California.

Hector Medina, an employee of Firestone, went out to Sandoval’s location on the sidewalk with the intent to remove Sandoval from the premises, because Firestone policy directs employees to remove solicitors and transients from the property.

Apparently, Medina’s idea of “removing” meant pouring gasoline into Sandoval’s shopping cart with all of his possessions and lighting it on fire.

Unfortunately, the fire spread beyond the cart to Sandoval himself.

15% of Sandoval’s body suffered third-degree burns, and he subsequently spent six months in the hospital to treat his injuries.

Medina pleaded guilty to arson and is currently incarcerated.

Now, Sandoval is suing not only Medina for his injuries, but Firestone parent company Bridgestone as well.

Hot Doc: Sandoval v. Bridgestone Retail Operations LLC

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

Obviously, there’s no question of Medina’s liability: the criminal guilty plea alone is damning evidence.

There is a question of Medina’s ability to pay the $1.5 million in damages, though, which brings up the most important question.

Is Firestone liable for the acts of Medina, its employee at the time of the incident?

The complaint invokes the principle of respondeat superior, or employer liability, to argue that Firestone is, indeed, liable.

Respondeat superior, codified in California Civil Code Section 2338, holds that an employer is responsible to third persons for the negligence of his employee in the course of the employee’s business duties.

Does it hold an employer responsible for an employee’s criminal, sociopathic behavior?

Yes, if the acts were committed in the scope of employment and authorized by the employer.

But how can any criminal acts be within the scope of someone’s employment or authorized by the employer?

The Supreme Court of California established in 1991’s Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles that it doesn’t matter “whether the wrongful act itself was authorized.”

Instead, the question is whether the act “was committed in the course of a series of acts” of the employee which were authorized by the employer.

So were Medina’s “series of acts” leading to Sandoval’s injuries authorized by the employer?

Firestone’s policy directing employees to remove transients from company property, if that is truly the case as the complaint alleges, would easily be sufficient to demonstrate authorization for Medina’s “series of acts.”

Even without the policy, existing California case law would strongly support Firestone’s liability for Medina’s acts.

Though it seems harsh to punish Firestone for the sadistic acts of an employee, it’s good public policy to incentivize employers to be selective enough in their hiring processes so as not to put a sociopath in a position of authority.

Hopefully that theory pans out in the future so that no other transients are burned alive for hanging around the sidewalk of a Firestone.