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.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a church could be liable for a serious injury sustained by a two year old child while in the custody of a church-operated day care center, though the exact cause of the accident was uncertain since no adult witnessed it. A two-year-old child (the “victim”) sustained a significant laceration to her face, from her cheek down to her jaw, while in the custody of a church day care center. The injury resulted in multiple reconstructive surgeries and left the child with a permanent scar. The exact circumstances under which the victim was injured are unclear, as no adult witnessed the accident.
One of the day-care workers stated in a deposition that she was talking with a parent who had come to the day care to retrieve her child when she heard the victim cry out. When she turned around, the victim was bleeding from the mouth, obviously in need of medical assistance. The victim was rushed to the emergency room, but the hospital staff determined the extent of the injuries was too severe, and the emergency room too ill-equipped, to properly treat the child. As a result, the victim was transferred to a hospital in another city where reconstructive surgery was performed. In addition to the soft-tissue injuries, the victim sustained maxillary trauma which resulted in two of her teeth being loosened from the socket. A maxillofacial surgeon surgically removed those teeth and fitted the victim with a dental implant.
The victim told her mother that one of the boys in the day care had “stomped on her face.” One of the surgeons who had operated on the victim agreed that her injuries were consistent with a strong blow to the face, or a hard blow to the head. The church argued that the victim had somehow fallen. The child’s mother sued the church, claiming that it had been negligent in supervising the victim. A trial court granted the church’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that no reasonable jury could find the church to have been negligent. The mother appealed.
The state supreme court reversed the summary judgment in favor or the church, and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The court acknowledged that “a school is not expected to insure children’s safety, but it must exercise the ordinary care of a reasonable person under similar circumstances.” In addition, the level of supervision that is required depends on the age of the children in a church’s custody. The younger the child, the greater the duty of supervision. The court concluded: “Should the jury find that the day care director breached her duty when she did not keep the children in sight for two or three minutes, the jury could reasonably find for the victim …. A jury must decide what constitutes proper and adequate supervision for a two-year old child. Therefore, whether or not the child care director met the appropriate standard of care required for a two-year-old child must be determined by a jury.”
Application. This case illustrates two important points. First, a church may be liable for injuries to minors even without clear evidence of how the injuries occurred. Second, a church is not a guarantor of the safety of children. Rather, it has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of its programs and activities. This duty is enhanced when younger children are involved. This court concluded that a church might be liable, on the basis of negligent supervision, for injuries to a two-year-old child that occurred in a church child care facility when the director turned her back on the children for two minutes. Todd v. Church, 993 So.2d 827 (Miss. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, September/October 2009.