An Oregon jury awarded $7.1 million in damages to a boy who became a quadriplegic as a result of injuries he suffered during a touch football game at a scouting activity. The boy, who was 16 at the time of the injury, was returning a kickoff when he was tackled and broke his neck. He sued national and regional scouting organizations, claiming that they were responsible for his injuries on the basis of negligent supervision and negligent training of volunteer workers. A court dismissed the lawsuit, and the victim then sued two adult volunteers who were present at the event. A jury awarded $7.1 million in damages against the two volunteers on the basis of negligence. The case is being appealed.
Relevance to church treasurers. While this case involved a scouting organization, it is directly relevant to churches. Churches often engage in sporting activities for both youth and adults. Church treasurers should note the following:
- Negligent selection, supervision, or training. While the lawsuit against the scouting organizations was dismissed in the Oregon case, it is possible for a church to be sued as a result of an injury occurring during a youth activity on the basis of negligent selection, negligent supervision, or negligent training. Negligent selection means that a church failed to exercise reasonable care in the selection of workers. Negligent supervision means that a church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of workers. Negligent training means that a church failed to exercise reasonable care in the training of workers. It is critical for church treasurers, along with other church leaders, to evaluate their procedures (if any) for selecting, supervising, and training youth workers. Are such procedures adequate? If a child is injured during a church activity, would a jury conclude that your procedures for selecting, supervising, or training workers (whether paid or volunteer) are sufficient? Is it possible that a jury would conclude that your church failed to exercise proper care? If so, you should immediately address this concern.
- Unpaid volunteer workers who are in charge of youth activities may be personally liable for injuries that occur. Ordinarily, liability will be based on negligent supervision. This means that the volunteers failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the activity.
- Insurance. Do you know whether or not your church liability insurance policy covers volunteers? You should. If you are unsure, review your policy and discuss it with your agent.
- Limited immunity. Some states provide limited immunity to unpaid volunteers who assist nonprofit organizations. Such laws generally provide that a volunteer cannot be legally responsible for injuries that are caused by his or her ordinary negligence. You may want to find out if your state has enacted such a law. If so, it will provide some protection for volunteer workers. Note, however, that such laws ordinarily do not protect against gross negligence, and it is possible that a jury would conclude that some injuries are caused by a volunteer’s gross negligence.
- Parental consent forms. Does your church require that a form be signed by parents or legal guardians of all minors that (1) consents to their child participating in the customary activities of the youth group (such activities should be described); (2) certifies that their child is able to swim; (3) lists those activities that their child is not permitted to participate in; (4) lists any medical condition or allergy that may be relevant to a health care professional in the event of an injury; and (5) authorizes a designated adult worker to make emergency medical decisions on behalf of the child in the event the parents or guardians cannot be located. Have a local attorney prepare such a form for you if you do not already have one.
This article originally appeared in Church Treasurer Alert, April 1994.