(CN) - A security company is not liable after its employee helped to set "one of the largest residential arsons in Maryland history," allegedly to keep black families out, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Joseph Antonio and others brought the federal complaint in Greenbelt in connection to the 2004 arson that destroyed more than two dozen homes in the Hunters Brooke neighborhood of Indian Head, Md.
They said Aaron Speed, one of the guards SSA Security hired to protect the neighborhood, conspired with four other men to destroy the homes that racial-minority families were trying to close on. The Baltimore Sun reported in 2005 that Speed got eight years and four months for his role in the fires. Speed, whose infant son had died eight months before the arson, reportedly denied racial motivation and blamed his crime on feeling "slighted by life," the Sun reported.
The complaint alleged that another SSA guard, Williams Fitzpatrick, had left his shift early to let Speed and the co-conspirators set the fires.
Terri Rookard and Derrick Potts had taken possession of their homes prior to the arsons, but none of the other families had closed on or taken possession of the homes yet. U.S. Home Corp. and Patriot Homes Inc. still owned these properties, and, under the terms of their contract, the developers assumed all loss for the fires.
The families nevertheless sued SSA Security, seeking to hold the firm liable for negligent hiring, negligence under the Maryland Security Guards Act, and emotional distress.
A federal judge in Greenbelt granted the defendants summary judgment against all but Rookard and Potts.
Those parties settled with SSA, and a three-judge appellate panel in Richmond, Va., affirmed dismissal of the other claims Wednesday.
"Although we do not wish to downplay the severity of the emotional harm that the homebuyers suffered due to the arsons, we recognize that, under Maryland law, 'a plaintiff ordinarily cannot recover for emotional injury caused by witnessing or learning of negligently inflicted injury to the plaintiff's property,'" Judge Henry Floyd wrote for the panel.
The arsons did not threaten the personal safety of the homebuyers, and SSA had no intent to cause them emotional injuries, according to the ruling
"We understand that the destruction of one's home is a terrible experience that causes lasting emotional trauma," Floyd wrote. "However, because the homebuyers did not own their homes at the time of the arsons and suffered only emotional injuries, Maryland law prevents their recovery against SSA."
The court found the Maryland Securities Act ambiguous as to whether a security employer could be held liable for off-duty criminal acts of an employer, if those acts were planned while he or she was on duty.
It certified this question to the Court of Appeals of Maryland for further clarification.