A North Carolina appeals court ruled that a church was not responsible on the basis of negligence for the rape of an adolescent camper by an adult worker at a church camp. The court concluded that the church and camp had exercised sufficient care in the selection and supervision of the worker to rebut the allegation of negligence. A 16-year-old female (the “victim”) attended a summer camp owned and operated by a national religious denomination and a regional affiliate (the “church defendants”). On the last night of camp, an activity called “the Game” was conducted. The purpose of the Game was for campers to sneak around camp staff members through a wooded area, in the dark, and ring a bell located at the top of a hill. The Game was restricted to senior high campers. All participants were required to play with partners for safety purposes. The victim and a friend were partners, and at some point during the evening they met two male camp staff members. The victim’s friend and one of the staff members left together, leaving the victim and the other staff member. The victim claimed that the staff member raped her.
After this incident, the victim returned to a camp dining hall. She did not report what happened to anyone at the camp or make any complaint regarding the assault until several months later. When confronted with the allegation, the assailant initially denied the sexual encounter but later claimed the encounter was consensual.
The victim and her father sued the church defendants, claiming they were responsible for the rape on the basis of negligence in their hiring, retention, and supervision of the staff member. In addition, the complaint alleged the defendants negligently failed to provide the victim with a safe environment when it conducted the Game. Plaintiffs also alleged that, as a result of defendants’ negligence, the victim suffered severe emotional distress. A trial court dismissed the claims against the church defendants, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The appeals court began its opinion by noting that negligence requires proof that a defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care, and a breach of that duty. The court agreed with the plaintiffs that the church defendants owed the victim a duty of care:
We hold that camps and their employees have a duty to their campers to exercise the same standard of care that a person of ordinary prudence, charged with the duty of supervising campers, would exercise under the same circumstances. Moreover … this duty of care is relative to the camper’s maturity. Thus, the foreseeability of harm to the individual camper is the relevant test which defines the extent of the duty to safeguard campers from the dangerous acts of others.
The plaintiffs insisted that the church defendants breached this duty of care in the following ways: (1) the Game occurred in a wide, heavily wooded area; (2) the Game occurred late at night; (3) adult camp staff participated in the Game with minor campers; and (4) the executive director, assistant director, and camp director did not supervise the Game.
But, the court pointed out, there were several facts supporting the church defendants’ claim that they did not breach a duty of care:
At the time the Game was played, the victim was 16 years old. Defendants specifically restricted the Game to senior high campers and required them to be with a partner while playing the Game for safety purposes. In addition, adult camp counselors and staff members were present as participants in and supervisors of the Game. These procedural safeguards adequately establish that defendants acted reasonably in their supervision of the Game, particularly in light of the maturity level of the senior high campers who participated in it. Thus, defendants did not breach their duty to the victim by conducting the Game.
The plaintiffs also claimed that the church defendants were negligent because they failed to adequately train the staff member who raped the victim. Specifically, they alleged that defendants (1) failed to have written rules prohibiting relationships between staff and campers; (2) failed to teach the assailant and staff that they should never be alone with a camper; and (3) failed to communicate that certain types of interactions with campers were prohibited. To support their allegations, the plaintiffs submitted an affidavit from a summer camp consultant and author of a book explaining the best practices for camp staff. The affidavit states:
The policies and procedures [of defendants’ camp] are below the standard of care applicable to a summer camp and do not conform to industry best practices. They do not include a clear statement prohibiting a staff member from being alone with a camper, and they demonstrate a disregard for the principle that at least two staff members must be present when working with campers. There was a clear lack of training and ongoing culture of improving and learning with an emphasis on the safety of children or the inappropriateness of staff to camper relationships.
The court noted that the consultant’s opinion was based “solely on his review of the camp’s written policies and procedures,” and that “several of defendants’ staff members testified that they were orally instructed that two staffers must be present at all times when dealing with campers and that they were also warned to be very careful about any physical or romantic relationships with campers.” Most importantly, the assailant himself submitted an affidavit in which he stated that he knew his conduct with the vicitm was “against camp policies,” and “inappropriate and prohibited.” In summary, while the consultant’s affidavit “may create an issue of fact regarding whether defendants had an adequate written policy regarding sexual relationships between camp staff and campers, it does not establish that no such policy existed. On the contrary, the undisputed evidence is that camp staff members were made aware that sexual relationships with campers were prohibited.”
The court noted that prior to his employment, the assailant provided a personal disclosure indicating he had no criminal convictions, that he had never been dismissed, suspended, or asked to resign from a job, and that he had never had a complaint lodged against him for sexual molestation, abuse, or harassment. Additionally, the church defendants checked the National Sex Offender Registry to ensure he was not disqualified from employment. Defendants also received a favorable recommendation in a telephone interview with a trusted reference. Finally, the assailant was hired in 2007 and his employment was very positive that summer. Based on the prior investigation, and his positive performance in 2007, he was re-hired for the summer of 2008 (the summer that the rape occurred).
The court concluded:
Taken together, this undisputed evidence demonstrates as a matter of law that defendants acted reasonably in its training and hiring of the assailant and that his conduct which harmed the victim was unforeseeable by defendants … . Defendants did not breach their duty of care to the victim by failing to maintain a safe environment at the camp. There was no evidence which would have allowed defendants to anticipate the assailant’s actions towards the victim or take additional reasonable steps to prevent them. Since there are no genuine issues as to any material facts, the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
What This Means For Churches:
This case is instructive, for it illustrates the kinds of precautions that churches, camps, and youth-serving charities can take to satisfy their duty of care in the selection of youth workers and the supervision of youth activities. In summary, the court concluded that the church defendants had not breached their duty of care to the victim, and therefore were not responsible on the basis of negligence for the staff member’s conduct, because of the following factors:
The church defendants restricted the Game to senior high campers.
Participants in the Game were required to be with a partner.
Adult camp counselors and staff members were present as participants in, and supervisors of, the Game.
While the camp’s written policies and procedures may have been inadequate, several staff members testified they were orally instructed that two staffers must be present at all times when dealing with minor campers.
Adult camp staffers were orally warned to avoid any physical or romantic relationships with minor campers.
The church defendants used a written application when selecting adult camp staff, which asked applicants to disclose (1) any criminal convictions; (2) if they had ever been dismissed, suspended, or asked to resign from a job; and (3) if they had ever had a complaint lodged against them for sexual molestation, abuse, or harassment.
The church defendants checked the National Sex Offender Registry to ensure adult camp staffers were not registered sex offenders.
The church defendants received a favorable recommendation in a telephone interview with a trusted reference.
The assailant had a track record. He had been hired for the previous camp season, giving the church defendants an opportunity to assess his fitness and suitability for working with minors. His performance was exemplary, with no hint of misconduct. Nowlin v. Moravian Church in America, 745 S.E.2d 51 (N.C. App. 2013).