Idyllwild Water District has filed a $50,000 lawsuit against Director Steven Kunkle of the IWD board, alleging negligence when he was an employee of the district. The suit alleges that when Kunkle was the Sewer Department Chief Operator (also known as Wastewater Supervisor) he, for several years, allowed hydraulic fluid to leak from a piece of heavy equipment onto and into the ground on land which the district uses on special permit from the Forest Service.
The complaint alleges a single cause of action labeled “Negligence” in typical “knew or should have known” general negligence language, but then invokes Labor Code section 2865, a 1937 statute that reads, in relevant part: “Any employee who is guilty of a culpable degree of negligence is liable to his employer for the damage thereby caused to the employer.” Very few modern courts have wrestled with the meaning of “a culpable degree of negligence,” but those who tried have determined that it means at least gross negligence and perhaps even negligence of a criminal nature. This would, of course, be a very high standard of proof required of plaintiff IWD at trial.
As to the ordinary general negligence language, courts have not found a right in employers to sue their employees for general negligence, opining that such a finding would fly in the face of the doctrine of respondeat superior, which holds that an employer is liable for the general negligence of its employee. Combining the two would make the employer ultimately liable for the negligence of the employee it is suing for that negligence — an untenable, circular result.
IWD held a general meeting at its office Wednesday night, but the lawsuit was not a topic of discussion.
As usual, the Town Crier will advise of further developments.
Jack Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.