Acri v. State (CA1 3/30/17)

The court explains why an obligation is not a duty.

Homeowners who suffered property damage in the Yarnell fire sued the state for fighting it negligently. The trial court dismissed, holding that the State has no duty. The Court of Appeals affirms.

Plaintiffs first made a public-policy argument. The parties agreed that “prevention or suppression of wildfires . . . is a fundamental public safety obligation.” But “protecting private property against a natural occurrence on public land maintained in natural condition” is, the court feels, an “unworkably broad” duty. The firefighting statute (37-1303) says that fires are fought “in the best interest of the state.” Benefits to private landowners are “incidental to broader public-safety concerns and the best interest of the state” and do not establish a duty to individuals. The court also notes that creating a duty to Plaintiffs would prioritize private lands, limiting the State’s firefighting decisions.

Plaintiffs argued that the State assumed a duty by fighting the fire. Under the Restatement (323) one who voluntarily renders services to another assumes a duty. But the court says that fighting fires, under the statute, is for the benefit of the state, not a service to an individual. The court also says that fighting fires shouldn’t create a duty because that would influence the state to “shield itself from liability” by not fighting them. (Which shows how “fundamental” the state’s “obligations” really are.)

Since the fire started on state land Plaintiffs argued that the state was liable for its spread. The Restatement (Second, Torts, 363) says that possessors are not liable for harm caused outside the land by natural conditions. The court concludes that a lightning-caused fire is a natural condition. Other jurisdictions have disagreed but the court does not discuss their reasoning since that’s not what, the court concluded in the previous paragraph, the Restatement means.

(Opinion: Acri v. State)