Is an Employer Liable for Damage Caused by an Employee’s Smoking?

One of the critical rules in personal injury law is the doctrine of respondeat superior. Basically, this means an employer is vicariously liable for a tort committed by an employee in the “course or scope” of his or her employment. For example, if a delivery van runs a red light and hits another car, the owner of the delivery van is liable under respondeat superior for the driver’s negligence.

Acadia Insurance Co. v. United States of America

There are many cases in which the application of this rule is not obvious. Many personal injury lawsuits against employers turn on the question of whether the employee was really acting within the scope of employment when the plaintiff suffered his or her injury. A recent decision by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta considered the unusual question of whether a “smoke break” occurs in the course of employment.

The defendant in this case is the federal government. In 2010, an FBI special agent attended a six-week training course in Huntsville, Alabama. The course was not required but the FBI paid for the instruction to provide him with “specialized skills” related to his work.

While attending the course, the agent stayed in a local hotel. One evening there was a fire at the hotel. Local officials said at the time “two balconies on the second floor caught on fire,” and the flames then spread to the floor above. The hotel claims the FBI agent was smoking on the balcony of his room, and his improperly discarded cigarette started the fire.

The hotel’s insurance company paid for the substantial damage to the building. The insurer then sued the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. This law allows private parties to sue the government under state law for negligent acts committed by its employees.

The government argued that even if the agent’s smoking started the fire, that was not an act that occurred in the “course of his employment.” The agent was off-duty at the time. The government said there was therefore no connection between his smoking and his attending the training course.

The courts agreed with the government’s reasoning and dismissed the insurance company’s lawsuit. A federal judge in Alabama said the insurance company’s argument “would essentially result in an employer being held responsible for anything its employee does while on travel,” which was inconsistent with Alabama law. (The law in Georgia is similar to Alabama with respect to respondeat superior.)

The 11th Circuit, upholding the Alabama judge’s ruling, added the FBI “did not pay for” the agent’s cigarettes, and in fact he was barred from using his government credit card to purchase them. Nor did the FBI directly supervise the agent while attending the training course. Finally, the FBI received no benefit, as an employer, from the agent’s smoking. To the contrary, the 11th Circuit said the employee’s “smoking was impelled by purely personal motives.”

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