U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

No Vicarious Liability for Security Co After Employee's Arson

Security Services of America is not liable for damages caused by its security guard who burned down a subdivision he was charged with protecting, the Fourth Circuit ruled last Friday. A state law, the Maryland Security Guard Act, did not expand the company's liability beyond traditional doctrines of respondeat superior.

Aaron Speed was working as a security guard with SSA when he and several accomplices committed one of the largest arsons in Maryland history, burning down 10 under-construction houses and damaging 16 others. The racially motivated arson, committed in 2004, caused $10 million in damage. Speed had been hired by SSA to guard the construction site.

Was Arson the Business of the Agency?

Speed was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for the racially-motivated arson -- the subdivision had been marketed largely to black homeowners -- and the victims sought restitution from SSA for its negligence and violations of the Maryland Security Guards Act.

The Maryland act holds security agencies responsible for the acts of their employees while those employees are "conducting the business of the agency." Speed had planned the arson while on the job, smuggling in fuel and mapping out the site. SSA would only be responsible for Speed's actions if the Act had expanded liability to include more than employee actions taken in furtherance of the business.

Statute Does Not Expand Liability

The Maryland district court found that SSA had not been negligent and ruled that the Maryland Security Guards Act simply codified the common-law doctrine of respondeat superior. Since Speed's actions were not considered to be done to advance his employers' business, and thus were not covered by the doctrine, the homeowners had argued that the Security Guards Act expanded vicarious liability beyond what was included in common law.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit certified to the state Court of Appeals the question of whether the Security Guard Act expanded common law vicarious liability or not. The state court found no such expansion of respondeat superior. Declining the read an abrogation of common law into the statute, it held that the Security Guards Act did not expand liability beyond common law doctrines. Based on that, and the fact that the homeowners had not challenged the district court's negligence findings, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the holding in SSA's favor.

The ruling not only reaffirms the limits of employer liability, it puts to rest, for the moment, litigation which has lasted over ten years.

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