In a development of immense importance to church leaders, a California appellate court ruled that a youth-serving charity had a legal duty to perform criminal background checks on employees and volunteers, and could be liable for the sexual molestation of minors by unscreened workers. Doe v. United States Youth Soccer Association, 8 Cal.App.5th 1118 (Cal. App. 2017). The court's ruling is historic because it represents the first reported case in which a court unequivocally reached this conclusion. As a result, the decision merits careful study by church leaders.
A 12-year-old girl (the "plaintiff") was sexually abused by her soccer coach. She sued national, state, and local youth soccer associations (the "defendants"), claiming that they were responsible for her injuries on the basis of negligence and willful misconduct. She claimed that the defendants had a duty to protect her from her coach's criminal conduct, and that the defendants breached their duties to her by failing to conduct criminal background checks and by failing to warn or educate her about the risk of sexual abuse.
A trial court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that they had no duty to protect the plaintiff from criminal conduct by a third party. The plaintiff appealed. A state appeals court reversed the trial court's dismissal of the case, finding that the defendants had a duty to conduct criminal background checks of all adults who would have contact with children involved in their programs.