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Teenager's Liability in Fire Argued

Court: Appellate judges overturn a ruling that found boy financially responsible after a cigarette he gave to an underage friend started a blaze.

January 13, 1998|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Can a 17-year-old who gave his younger friend a pack of cigarettes be held liable if one of those cigarettes eventually causes a destructive fire?

Yes, said Orange County Superior Court Judge H. Warren Siegel in a ruling that ordered the 17-year-old and his father to cough up $44,500.

But a Santa Ana appeals court, which may not have the final word, held that the boy was not responsible and reversed the judge's order.

At issue in the case was whether Timothy Matlock, who at 17 couldn't legally purchase the cigarettes, should pay for a fire that destroyed a stockpile of telephone poles in Huntington Beach. The fire was ignited by a cigarette that Matlock gave to a friend who accidentally dropped it between some logs, causing $100,000 damage.

An insurance company paid off the damage claim, then sued Matlock and his father for partial reimbursement. The firm's attorneys successfully argued in Superior Court that the 17-year-old was partially responsible for the blaze because he broke a 106-year-old California law that makes it unlawful to give cigarettes to minors.

But the 4th District Court of Appeal said recently that the Superior Court judge misread the law and went too far when he ordered the Matlocks to pay nearly half of the damage amount.

Someone who gives an individual a cigarette, even though it may be unlawful, cannot be held responsible for "any property which the cigarette may by some happenstance ignite," said Presiding Justice David Sills.

In its ruling, the court addressed, in part, underage smoking and who is ultimately responsible if a minor starts a fire with cigarettes that were illegally provided to him.

Cigarettes are the leading cause of fatal fires, responsible for about a quarter--roughly 1,000--of all U.S. fire deaths.

The cigarette that sparked this raging legal battle was from one of two packs that Matlock bought from a gas station one day in April 1993.

He gave a pack to his friend Eric Erdley, and the two headed for one of their favorite hangouts, the Wood-Man Pole Co. at 17200 Bolsa Chica Road.

Matlock and Erdley were later joined by two younger boys, who clowned around with them on a pile of telephone poles stacked high above the ground.

As Erdley smoked a cigarette, Matlock teased the younger boys, telling them that the logs were going to fall.

"The boys started to run, though perhaps more out of laughter than from fear," according to Sills' opinion.

As he ran, one boy bumped into Erdley, causing him to drop his cigarette between the logs.

Erdley attempted to retrieve the cigarette, but couldn't reach it. He even tried to extinguish it by spitting on it. No luck.

Twenty minutes after the boys left the woodpile, the telephone poles were engulfed in flames.

The pole company sued Erdley's parents and their homeowner insurance, Wawanesa Mutual Insurance.

The firm ended up paying $89,000 to Wood-Man. The Orange County and Huntington Beach fire departments, which put out the blaze, received further payments of $10,000 and $1,000 respectively under a state law that allows firefighters to recoup some of their costs if a fire is started by a careless act.

Wawanesa's attorneys then sued the Matlocks and their insurance company. Siegel ruled that Paul Matlock should pay $25,000 under a law that holds a parent responsible for the "willful misconduct" of his or her child.

Siegel reasoned that the state law making it unlawful to give cigarettes to minors had to have "more than health concerns" in mind when it was passed in 1891, "since the health issues on tobacco are of considerably more recent concern."

But Sills disagreed, saying the law was "intended to prevent early addiction to tobacco" and "has nothing to do with fire suppression."

Sills said Matlock could not have reasonably predicted that the cigarette he gave to Erdley would start a fire.

"There must be some reason to conclude that the act of giving a cigarette creates a fire hazard," Sills wrote.

Teresa Trucchi, an attorney for Wawanesa, said the appellate opinion "let the underage smokers off the hook."

"I don't think this is the kind of public policy the court needs to be establishing," said Trucchi, adding that the firm may appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

But Peter M. Callahan, an attorney for the Matlocks, said Sill's opinion was "a good dose of common sense."

"It's not like these kids were setting off firecrackers," Callahan said. "The fire was simply not foreseeable."

Gary T. Schwartz, who teaches tort law at UCLA Law School, agreed with Sills.

"Even though cigarettes cause a large number of fires, giving a kid a cigarette is not in the same league as giving an unlicensed kid a car to drive or a loaded gun for that matter," Schwartz said. "A decision [supporting Wawanesa] would have seemed flaky."

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