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Churches' Liabilities for Minors' Drowning Deaths

A court found a seminary legally responsible for a boy's death.

A Pennsylvania state appeals court ruled that a seminary was responsible for the drowning death of a 12-year-old boy. The victim was swimming with a group of altar boys from a Catholic church at a seminary-owned pool. The victim's mother sued the seminary, alleging that it had been negligent in allowing the boys to use the pool without a qualified lifeguard on duty. At the time of the drowning, the pool was under the supervision of a priest. The jury concluded that both the seminary and church were negligent, and it awarded more than $1 million in damages. The seminary appealed, and a state appeals court upheld the jury's award. The court observed that "it is clear that [the evidence] was sufficient to support the jury's finding that the seminary had breached a duty owed to the minor decedent. The seminary, as owner of the pool, had a duty to exercise those precautions which a reasonably prudent owner would have taken to prevent injury to those persons whom it knew or should have known were using the pool …. A jury could have found, in view of the evidence, that the seminary knew or should have known that its pool was being used by children and that it failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent injury to them." The court further observed that "it was for the jury to determine whether the seminary had been negligent in failing to take reasonable precautions to prevent access to its pool when a competent lifeguard was not present and whether the seminary could reasonably rely upon [the priest] to supervise the activities of the boys while they were using the pool." This case illustrates the important principle that churches and religious organizations may be liable for negligent supervision if they do not have an adequate number of trained adults supervising a youth activity. The mere presence of adult supervision will not be enough in some cases. Those adults must in fact be qualified to supervise the activity in question and to respond to emergencies that may occur. Rivera v. Philadelphia Theological Seminary, 580 A.2d 1341 (Pa. Super. 1990).

Negligent Supervision

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  • May 1, 1991