FBI Not Vicariously Liable For Fire Damage

11th Circuit judges Stanley Marcus, Julia Carnes, and Jill Pryor upheld the decision that the FBI was not vicariously liable for fire damage to a Country Inn and Suites hotel caused when FBI Special Agent Michael Siegling (“Siegling”) “negligently discarded“ his cigarette.

Siegling stayed at a Country Inn and Suites hotel in Huntsville, Alabama while attending a voluntary 6-week training course on hazardous materials.  In the evenings, he frequently smoked cigarettes on the balcony of his second-floor hotel room.  After a fire spread one evening at the hotel, rendering an entire wing uninhabitable, the Fire Marshal determined that the cause was a “negligently discarded” cigarette from the balcony of Siegling’s room.  Acadia Insurance Company, which indemnified the hotel, brought a subrogation claim against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Acadia argued that the FBI was vicariously liable since it paid for Siegling to stay in a smoking room while attending the FBI training course.  Under Alabama law, the rule for determining whether the conduct of an employee is within the scope of his employment is substantially that if an employee is engaged to perform a certain service, then whatever he does to that end, or in furtherance of the business, is within the scope of the employment.  Solmica of Gulf Coast, Inc. v. Braggs, 232 So. 2d 638, 642 (Ala. 1970).

The 11th Circuit held that Siegling was not acting within the scope of his employment when he discarded the cigarette because he was off duty, not under the FBI’s supervision, and not engaged in activities that furthered its business.  Furthermore, the FBI did not pay for his cigarettes.  Rather, it prohibited employees from purchasing cigarettes with a government credit card.  The 11th Circuit added that no evidence was presented that the FBI was aware that he purchased a smoking room, nor did it require Siegling to stay at that particular hotel.

The decision is Acadia Ins. Co. v. United States, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 394 , 2017 WL 83379 (11th Cir. 2017).

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