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Issues that affect ministers and churches
Court Rules School Is Not Responsible for Student’s Suicide
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Key point 10-11. A church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries resulting from a failure to exercise adequate supervision of its programs and activities.
Key point 10-17.1. Punitive damages are monetary damages awarded by a jury "in addition to compensation for a loss sustained, in order to punish, and make an example of, the wrongdoer." They are awarded when a person's conduct is reprehensible and outrageous. Most church insurance policies exclude punitive damages. This means that a jury award of punitive damages represents an uninsured risk.

Editor's note: The following Recent Development contains offensive slurs regarding sexual orientation. These details are facts from the case and are included here to help church leaders understand both the nature and severity of the situation, and the types of factors that can contribute to potential litigation.

The federal Court of Claims ruled that a parochial school was not responsible for the suicide of a freshman student who was a victim of relentless bullying. In his freshman year as a student at a Catholic high school, a freshman student (the "victim") was allegedly abused and harassed while on campus. He was called "faggot," "fag," "gay," and suffered other sexually oriented and derogatory verbal abuse. The victim's mother identified three male students as primarily responsible for the abusive behavior, which included advice for the victim to "go home and kill himself." Students also hit the victim with belts. Tragically, the victim later committed suicide.

The victim's mother (the "plaintiff") sued the school, claiming that it was responsible for her son's death because of its failure to enforce its own anti-bullying policy. The trial court granted the school's motion to dismiss all claims, concluding that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that the school was negligent, and failed to show that she was entitled to punitive damages. The plaintiff appealed.

The appeals court agreed with the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit. It noted that a claim of negligence requires proof of the following elements: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) an injury or loss; and (4) the injury or loss was reasonably foreseeable "by a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence." The court concluded that the victim's suicide was not reasonably foreseeable and so the school was not responsible for it:

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