Boy Scouts of America Sued for Scoutmaster’s Negligence

Court rules that organization is not responsible for man’s activities.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

Personal Injuries-on Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point. National churches cannot be responsible for injuries occurring in the course of a local church’s activities unless it has the authority to control those activities.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled that the local and national offices of the Boy Scouts of America were not legally responsible for a scoutmaster’s negligence. A boy scout troop conducted its weekly meetings in a church. One evening, following a scout meeting, the scoutmaster’s 13-year-old son asked if he could drive home. The scoutmaster agreed, and sat in the front passenger seat while his son drove the car. As the car left the parking lot, three scouts on roller blades grabbed onto the back of the car. The scoutmaster shouted to the boys to let go, but they just laughed at him. He then instructed his son to “drive slowly.” About one block from the church, one of the boys fell when he tried to move from the back to the side of the car. The rear right tire of the car rolled over his head. The victim’s parents later sued the local and national BSA offices, claiming that they were responsible for the scoutmaster’s negligence in allowing his son to drive the car. The parents relied on the following evidence:

(1) an application for volunteers to become scoutmasters or hold other leadership positions which is submitted to the hosting church as well as the local and national BSA offices

(2) an application for boys to join the boy scouts in which the BSA represents that the boy “is joining more than four million members of the BSA,” that “major departures from BSA methods and policies” by community sponsors “are not permitted,” and that “[l]eadership is restricted to qualified adults”

(3) activity permit and health record forms prepared by BSA for use by local troops to use

(4) portions of BSA publications directing scoutmasters to wear specific uniforms and BSA patches

(5) portions of BSA handbooks and guides for scoutmasters prohibiting certain dangerous activities and specify certain rules for transporting scouts

(6) local and national BSA insurance policies covering scoutmasters

(7) an application for permission to raise funds that a troop would submit to its local council

(8) portions of the scoutmaster’s deposition indicating that he received some scoutmaster training from the local BSA organization

The court concluded that this evidence failed to demonstrate sufficient “control” over the scoutmaster by either the local or national BSA offices, and so the case had to be dismissed. It observed:

[The materials submitted by the parents] confirm that the day and time of troop meetings are set by the troop committee and that the community sponsor, through the troop committee, “is responsible for leadership, the troop meeting place, and related materials for troop activities.” Even though the materials suggest that “a good troop meeting” usually includes certain general activities, such as opening and closing ceremonies, skills development activities, and games or contests, they also make clear that the scoutmaster is responsible for planning the specific content of individual troop meetings. Accordingly, we conclude that the BSA’s broad suggestions and guidelines are insufficient as a matter of law to demonstrate the BSA’s or the [local] Council’s right to control the day-to-day operation of regular troop meetings.

The court then proceeded to address separately the following issues:

Training of scoutmasters. The court concluded that whatever training activities the scoutmaster received from the local or national offices was “insufficient to establish the BSA’s or the Council’s right to control [his] activities at regular troop meetings …. [W]hile the BSA and the Council influence the result to be achieved by regular troop meetings, these entities do not control the day-to-day operation of troop meetings.”

Uniforms and patches. The court ruled that “wearing of uniforms and patches is insufficient to create a material factual dispute as to the BSA’s and the Council’s right to control scoutmaster activities at regular troop meetings in light of the overall organizational structure adopted by the BSA.”

Group insurance. The fact that the local or national BSA offices provide umbrella insurance coverage for volunteers “has no bearing on whether the BSA or the Council retain the right to control [his] day-to-day activities at regular troop meetings.”

Rules and guidelines on transporting scouts. The court concluded that BSA’s rules and guidelines on transporting scouts failed to demonstrate the necessary right to control a scoutmaster’s transportation of scouts to and from troop meetings.

First, the rules and guidelines are obviously directed to outings and trips apart from regular troop meetings. Second, they do little more than set forth minimum qualifications and rules that are largely coextensive with state law and common sense. For instance, the BSA Health and Safety Guide provides the following “general guidelines”: (i) Drivers must obey state and local speed limit laws; (ii) drivers must possess a valid driver’s license and be at least eighteen years of age; (iii) a driver must have a commercial driver’s license to transport fifteen or more passengers in a single vehicle; (iv) daily trips must not exceed twelve hours and must be interrupted with frequent stops; (v) seat belts must be used; (vi) passengers must ride only in the cab of a truck; (vii) passengers should not ride on the rear deck of station wagons; (viii) all driving, except short trips, should be done in daylight; (ix) adequate property damage and liability insurance must be carried; and (x) vehicles must not travel in convoys. Noticeably absent from [the parents’] evidence is any indication that the BSA or the Council has a policy governing when and how a scoutmaster is to transport scouts home from regular troop meetings. As a result, we conclude that such activity is left entirely to the discretion of the scoutmaster or the community sponsor. We therefore fail to see how these minimum qualifications and rules amount to a right to control the manner and method of [a scoutmaster’s] conduct in connection with troop meetings any more than would a franchisor’s minimum contractual requirements that its franchisee be duly licensed and comply with applicable law.

Annual charter renewals. The court noted that BSA issues an annual renewable charter to the community sponsor (the church in this case) which then owns and operates a troop, organizes a troop committee, and selects the scoutmaster. The court observed: “it is apparent that the BSA and the Council act in a chartering and advisory capacity and do not retain the right to control day-to-day troop operations.”

The court concluded that “the basis for the right [of control] must be evident from the facts as they exist. [The parents] cannot establish the basis for the right by merely speculating that under a different organizational structure the BSA and the Council could have retained the right to control scoutmasters at regular troop meetings. Such speculation is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact for purposes of a summary judgment motion.

The court stressed that its decision was “in accord with the vast majority of jurisdictions which have held as a matter of law that … neither the BSA nor a local council has a right to control the conduct of scoutmasters in connection with troop activities that are not directly sponsored or supervised by the BSA or a local council.” The court referred to similar rulings in Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington.

Application. This case is relevant to any national or regional church organization that operates a children’s program. It illustrates that a national or regional organization will not necessarily be legally responsible for every injury that occurs during a local activity-unless it has the authority to control that activity. The court rejected the legal significance of the many ways the national BSA is connected to its local troops and scoutmasters. Glover v. Boy Scouts of America, 923 P.2d 1383 (Utah 1996). [Denomina tional Liability]

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