• Key point: Churches are not guarantors of the safety of children who participate in their programs. Ordinarily, they are legally responsible for injuries to children only if they were negligent in selecting the worker who caused the injury or in supervising the activity during which the injury occurred.
• An Arizona court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries suffered by a 4-year-old child at the church's child care facility. A 4-year-old child broke his leg while in the care child care center operated by a church. The injury occurred when the child fell while running, although no employee of the child care center actually saw the boy fall. The boy's parents later sued the church, claiming that their son's injuries were a direct result of the church's negligence in failing to adequately supervise children. Specifically, they alleged that the church has a legal duty to watch and supervise children within its care, and that this duty was breached "as no one saw [the boy] as he fell." The parents also argued that the church was liable on the basis of a legal doctrine ("res ipsa loquitur") that imposes liability on another when (1) someone is injured in a way that ordinarily does not occur without negligence, (2) the injury is caused by a product or on premises within the exclusive control of another, (3) the victim is unable to show the specific circumstances that caused the injury. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit and the parents appealed. The appeals court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the case. First, the court ruled that the church was not liable on the basis of negligent supervision. It quoted from an earlier decision of the Arizona Supreme Court recognizing that adults supervising the actions of children are not automatically liable for their injuries:
To hold that [a teacher] had to anticipate [a student's] act and somehow circumvent it is to say that it is the responsibility of a school teacher to anticipate the myriad of unexpected acts which occur daily in and about schools and school premises, the penalty for failure of which would be financial responsibility in negligence. We do not think that either the teacher or the district should be subject to such harassment nor is there an invocable legal doctrine or principle which can lead to such an absurd result. Morris v. Ortiz, 103 Ariz. 119, 121, 437 P.2d 652, 654 (1968).
The court quoted from another case involving an attempt to find a child care center liable for a child's injuries: "While supervisors of a day nursery are charged with the highest degree of care toward the children placed in their custody, they are nevertheless not the absolute insurers of their safety and cannot be expected or required to prevent children from falling or striking each other during the course of normal childhood play." The court insisted that "a short absence from supervision of a child is not the proximate cause of the child's injury if the supervisor's presence and attention would not have prevented the injury." The court concluded: "[The boy] slipped out of view of the caregiver for a few seconds at most. No evidence has been presented that he would not have been injured had he been in the caregiver's sight." Accordingly, the parents "have failed to present any evidence to support an inference that the caregiver's supervision, whether negligent or not, proximately caused [the boy's] broken leg."
The court also ruled that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply in this case, since it was clear that the boy's injuries were caused by a fall. The court gave the following examples of cases in which child care centers (some of them church-operated) were sued on the basis of this doctrine for injuries to children without any apparent explanation or cause:
Case 1: A 25-month old child sustained a skull fracture while being attended in a bowling alley nursery. The child's parents provided evidence of exposed pipes of a drinking fountain in the play area and evidence of inadequate supervision, together with evidence indicating that the child could not cause such an injury. The court ruled that the facility could be sued on the basis of res ipsa loquitur.
Case 2: An 11-week old child had a broken arm when picked up from a day care center. The evidence established several potentially dangerous conditions that could have injured their child and no evidence indicated the child could have possibly caused the injury. The court ruled that the facility could be sued on the basis of res ipsa loquitur.
Case 3: An 11-week old child had a broken arm when picked up from a day care center. The evidence established several potentially dangerous conditions that could have injured their child and no evidence indicated the child could have possibly caused the injury. The court ruled that the facility could be sued on the basis of res ipsa loquitur.
Case 4: A preschool child left in a nursery sustained a serious injury to his eye. The supervisor told his mother she was not sure how the injury occurred. The parents' lawsuit in this case was dismissed for failure to state a claim under res ipsa loquitur because the mere allegation of an "unusual" injury was not sufficient to infer negligence without evidence of "some act for which the defendant is responsible" that was not performed. The mere occurrence of an injury was insufficient to infer negligence.
Case 5: A 2-year-old child left in a church nursery during services sustained a severe eye injury while supervised by two adults. Neither witnessed the injury nor observed any unsafe condition. The court in this case concluded that res ipsa loquitur did not apply because "the circumstances testified to do not create any clear inference that the accident would not have happened if the [adult workers] had not been negligent."
There is one further aspect of this case that is worth noting. The parents also alleged that the church was guilty of negligently treating their son following the injury. While the court did not directly address this claim (for procedural reasons), it did note that Arizona has a "Good Samaritan" statute that provides some legal protection to those who provide emergency medical care to others. The statute reads: "Any … person who renders emergency care … shall not be liable for any civil or other damages as the result of any act or omission by such person rendering the emergency care, or as the result of any act or failure to act to provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care for the injured persons." Many other states have similar laws. Their purpose is to encourage persons to render emergency medical aid, and not refrain from doing so out of a fear of legal liability. Ward v. Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, 873 P.2d 688 (Ariz. App. Div. 1 1994). 12A3
See Also: Negligent Supervision
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