Board Members’ Liability

School board liable for student’s injuries, court finds.

Church Law and Tax 1996-09-01

Officers, Directors, and Trustees

Key point. Officers and directors of nonprofit organizations may be legally responsible for injuries that occur on church premises due to dangerous conditions that are known to the officers and directors.

A Louisiana court ruled that school board members were personally liable for injuries suffered by a minor when a wall fell on him. A 200—pound 14—year—old high school freshman entered a boys’ locker room after his team won a volleyball game during physical education class. In his excitement, he pulled himself up on a free standing cinder block partition wall that served to restrict the view of outsiders into the locker room. The first four rows of cinder blocks gave way and one of them landed on the boy’s foot, fracturing it. As a result of this injury, the boy wore a cast for 3 months and missed several weeks of school. This caused him to fail his ninth grade year. The boy and his parents sued the school board on the basis of a state law making board members liable for injuries occurring as a result of defects on premises under their control. The court found the board liable:

The evidence showed that the school board was aware of the age of the wall and was aware that a similar wall had been damaged by students several years earlier. At that point, the school board had notice that the wall … was subject to the same difficulties. The school board was aware that the wall could be damaged or dislodged by students. The school board was also aware that students are often rambunctious and might pull up on or jump on the wall. The risk of pieces falling from the wall posed an unreasonable risk of harm. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that there was a defect in the wall, that the defect posed an unreasonable risk of harm to students and that the school board had knowledge of this defect.

This case illustrates an important point-board members of nonprofit organizations (including churches) may be personally liable for injuries that occur on church premises or during church activities that are caused by their gross negligence. While most states have enacted “limited immunity” laws granting uncompensated directors of nonprofit organizations immunity from liability for their ordinary negligence, these laws provide no protection against gross negligence. It is entirely possible that a jury would find directors guilty of gross negligence if they ignore dangerous conditions on church property, or otherwise fail to take steps to protect persons from injuries or harm. Summerall v. Ouachita Parish School Board, 665 So.2d 734 (La. App. 1995). [ Personal Liability of Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees]

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