Ascending Liability Claims

National churches will not necessarily be held liable for the acts of local affiliates.

Church Law & Tax Report

Ascending Liability Claims

National churches will not necessarily be held liable for the acts of local affiliates.

Key point 10-18.2. Most courts have refused to hold denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches, either because of First Amendment considerations or because the relationship between the denominational agency and affiliated church or minister is too remote to support liability.

A California court ruled that the national headquarters of Little League Baseball was not legally responsible for the sexual molestation of a 10-year-old boy by an adult volunteer worker. Little League Baseball is a nonprofit organization founded in 1939 and granted a federal charter in 1964. Little League Baseball’s purpose is “to promote, develop, supervise, and voluntarily assist in all lawful ways the interest of those who will participate in Little League Baseball.” Little League Baseball operates through local leagues, which apply for a charter from Little League Baseball.

Little League Baseball has promulgated a Little League Operating Manual (Operating Manual) under which each local league establishes its own administration, elects its own board of directors, and establishes guidelines that best suit the needs of the community in which it is established. The local league is responsible for the selection and supervision of coaches, managers, umpires, and other volunteers.

Little League Baseball has also promulgated Official Regulations and Playing Rules (Regulations). The Regulations address the manner in which the teams are to be established, the official playing rules, and the basic safety rules for players. The rules also dictate the playing divisions, age ranges for each division, registration and tryouts, the start and end dates of each season, and other rules relating to the game of baseball.

The Operating Manual and the Regulations do not give Little League Baseball any control over day-to-day operations of the local leagues.

Little League Baseball offers administrative support to local leagues at their request but does not require that local leagues consult with Little League Baseball. Little League Baseball offers local leagues the option of enrolling in the Little League blanket accident insurance plan, but does not require them to do so. Similarly, Little League Baseball recommends that local leagues operate as nonprofit corporations but does not require them to do so.

In 1994, Little League Baseball created a child abuse prevention program for distribution to local leagues. In 1996, Little League Baseball recommended a statement that was incorporated into Little League Baseball’s 1997 Operating Manual and distributed to every local league. This statement recommended that each local league create a formal written policy defining abuse and stating that it was unacceptable; that all managers, coaches, and other volunteers have a background check at the time of their applications; that procedures be set up to receive and act on allegations of abuse; that local law enforcement should be involved in implementing preventive measures and responding to allegations; that the application procedure should ask for criminal history, employment history, and references; and that a preseason meeting should be held annually for managers, coaches, and parents to explain prevention and detection mechanisms. However, until 2003, Little League Baseball did not implement a rule requiring background checks for all local volunteers.

In the 1990s, a registered high-risk sex offender (Randy) began serving as an umpire with a Little League affiliate in California. He eventually was promoted to the paid position of “umpire-in-chief.” At this time, the local affiliate did not require its officials or volunteers to fill out a written application or undergo a background check or other investigation, and no background check was ever conducted on Randy.

In 1996, Randy sexually molested a 10-year-old boy (the “victim”) on several occasions following evening baseball games. He was apprehended and sentenced to 84 years in prison.

In 2004 the victim sued Little League Baseball and its local affiliate for negligence in screening, retention, and supervision; negligence in failing to take reasonable protective measures; negligence in violation of a special relationship; breach of fiduciary duty; negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress; and sexual assault, battery, and harassment. Little League Baseball (the national organization) was dismissed from the lawsuit, and the victims appealed this ruling.

the court’s ruling

The court began its ruling by describing the “convoluted syntax” of the victim’s legal claim: “The victim seeks to impose liability on the national organization that chartered the local organization for which the molester volunteered and later worked as an employee when the molester, through the local organization, met and befriended the child he later molested on occasions outside official Little League activities. Plaintiff’s theory of liability is that the national organization, Little League Baseball, was negligent in failing to require local leagues to investigate and screen local volunteers.”

The court concluded that “the nature and degree of the connection between the defendant’s acts and the events of which the plaintiff complains was, as a matter of public policy, too attenuated to support imposing liability on Little League Baseball.”

Application. This case is of direct relevance to any national denominational agency that has created a program for youth that can be utilized by local churches. The fact that the national church created the program does not necessarily make it liable for injuries that may occur at the local church level. Whether or not the national church is liable will depend on a number of factors. The court’s review of the nature of the relationship between Little League Baseball and its local affiliates provides an excellent example of the kinds of considerations that will be relevant in such a determination. These can guide national churches in the structuring of their youth programs and related manuals and resources to reduce the risk of ascending liability claims. B.R. v. Little League Baseball, Inc., 2009 WL 3049280 (Cal. App. 2009).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, May/June 2011.

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