Law School Case Brief
Arceneaux v. Texaco, Inc. - 623 F.2d 924 (5th Cir. 1980)
Vicarious liability is imposed for a tort only if the injured person has himself relied on representations to his detriment.
Charles Arceneaux drove his pickup truck with his three children and his wife as passengers into a Texaco service station and asked the attendant to fill the tank. There was evidence that, while the attendant was doing this, he lit a cigarette and ignited the gasoline. He jerked the nozzle out of the gas tank and sprayed flames into the cab of the truck. All of the Arceneaux family were seriously injured and Mrs. Arceneaux died as a result of her burns. The gas tank was on the driver's side of the Arceneaux vehicle, an eight-year-old General Motors (GM) truck. Mr. Arceneaux sued Texaco for the attendant’s negligence and GM for faulty design of the truck. Texaco’s principal defense was that the service station was independently operated and it was, therefore, not liable for the fault of the attendant. GM in turn cross-claimed against Texaco and filed a third-party complaint against the operator of the service station. The operator cross-claimed against GM. The jury then found that Texaco was not vicariously liable for the actions of the third-party defendant gas station operator because the station was independently operated. The jury also found that GM was not liable for defective design. Arceneaux appealed.
- Could Texaco be held vicariously liable for the actions of the third-party defendant gas station operator?
- Could GM be held liable for the car’s alleged defective design?
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, holding that Texaco could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of the gas station operator. According to the Court, vicarious liability for a tort could only be imposed if the injured person has himself relied on representations to his detriment. Neither the actual testimony nor any proffered by Arceneaux indicated such reliance or even facts from which reliance might be inferred. The Court held that the evidence proffered in support of this theory, i.e., television and radio advertising, which would have tended to show that Texaco misled the public into believing that it was responsible for service at Texaco stations, was properly excluded because Arceneaux himself stated that the reason he chose the service station was pure convenience; thus, Arceneaux did not rely on any representations that Texaco was responsible for the services of the defendant gas station operator. Anent the second issue, the Court held that GM could not be held liable for the defective design because the design of Arceneaux’s truck was not faulty based on knowledge at the time. According to the Court, evidence of a change in the gas tank location in trucks made after the model year of Arceneaux’s truck was inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 407 and irrelevant because the change was made before Arceneaux’s accident in response to environmental regulations.
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