Church Responsible for Deacon’s Negligent Driving

Deacon was driving while on church business.

Church Law and Tax 1993-11-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point: Churches can be legally responsible for accidents caused by board members in the course of church work.

A Louisiana appeals court ruled that a Baptist church was responsible for injuries sustained in an automobile accident caused by the negligent driving of a deacon while on church business. The deacon was driving his vehicle to pick up supplies for use in a church remodeling project. A bee entered his vehicle through an open window and landed on his arm. He began slapping at the bee, momentarily took his eyes off the road, and ran into two vehicles. The driver of one of the vehicles was killed, and her daughter was severely injured. A lawsuit was filed by the deceased woman’s husband and surviving children against the deacon and the church. A trial court concluded that the deacon had been negligent, and awarded damages of $1 million. The court did not find the church responsible for the deacon’s actions. The family appealed the trial court’s refusal to find the church liable. It did so because the deacon was unable to pay the $1 million judgment. A state appeals court concluded that the church was responsible for the deacon’s negligent driving. It noted that a church will be responsible for the actions of its “servants,” and defined a servant as one “employed to perform the services and affairs of another and who is subject to the other’s control or right to control with respect to the physical conduct in the performance of the services.” The court continued:

In [this] case, the issue involves a religious organization’s liability for the negligence of one of its deacons, who is not compensated for his services. An individual who volunteers services without an agreement for or expectation of reward may be deemed the servant of the one accepting those services. Whether the volunteer is to be considered a servant generally depends on the religious organization’s right to control the activities of the volunteer.

The court concluded that the church had sufficient control over the deacon to make him the church’s servant:

[The deacon] was more than a casual volunteer and indeed was a non-employee leader of [the church]. Both the church membership and the board of deacons had the right to exercise and did, in fact, exercise control over him. The membership had the right to discharge him from his position as a deacon if he failed to perform his duties. The deacon board was responsible for the planning and execution of the church remodeling project and [the chairman of the deacon board] had the authority to assign specific tasks to the members of the deacon board. Moreover, regarding the specific task at issue, members of the deacon board directed [the negligent deacon] concerning the materials to purchase, designated the approved places to obtain the specified materials and designated the general time by which delivery was expected. Although the specific time and route for travel were not dictated … this [deacon] held one of the highest levels of authority and responsibility within the hierarchy of the church such that precise details were unnecessary.

The court also ruled that the church insurance policy provided coverage for this accident even apart from the church’s responsibility for the actions of its deacons. The insurance policy provided coverage for accidents involving “nonowned autos” being used by members in the course of church activities. Finally, note that the deacon was found personally responsible for his actions. While the church also was found to be responsible for his actions, this in no way diminished the deacon’s personal responsibility for his negligent behavior. The family who brought the lawsuit felt compelled to sue the church because of the deacon’s inability to pay a $1 million judgment. Whetstone v. Dixon, 616 So.2d 764 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1993).

See Also: Vicarious Liability

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay