Denominational Control Does Not Equal Legal Liability

An Ohio court makes an important ruling.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Denominations—Legal Liability

Key point. The fact that a denominational agency may exercise ecclesiastical control over a minister does not necessarily make the agency legally responsible for the minister’s actions.

An Ohio court ruled that a denominational agency was not responsible for a local church elder’s actions even though it exercised ecclesiastical control over him. The elder, while driving his car, struck another vehicle. The impact killed the driver of the other vehicle and injured a passenger. The elder served as an elected but uncompensated official of a subdivision (“district”) of a state denominational agency, and at the time of the accident was involved in distributing fliers for a district event. A lawsuit was brought by the injured passenger and the family of the deceased driver (the “victims”) against national and state denominational agencies on the ground that they were legally responsible for the elder’s actions. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the case was appealed. The victims argued that the ecclesiastical control maintained by the church agencies was sufficient to make them liable for the elder’s actions on the basis of the legal doctrine of “respondeat superior.” The court observed that “[r]espondeat superior liability attaches only where the work performed is that of a master, and the servant is subject to the control of the master in performing the work.” It pointed to the following factors to be considered in deciding whether or not an organization should be liable for another’s actions on the basis of respondeat superior:

[There are several factors to consider] including whether or not the individual’s performance is in the course of the principal’s business rather than in some ancillary capacity; whether or not the individual receives any compensation from the principal; and whether or not the principal supplied the tools and the place of work in the normal course of the relationship. [Other factors include] such indicia as who controls the details and quality of the work; who controls the hours worked; who selects the materials, tools and personnel used; who selects the routes travelled; the length of employment; the type of business; the method of payment; and any pertinent agreements or contracts.

The victims claimed that the church agencies had sufficient “control” over the elder to make them liable for his actions since they could revoke his license as an ordained minister if they found that he was not living up to the moral standards required by the denomination. Further, the victims pointed out that the elder was an official with a subdivision of the state denominational agency, and as such he was subject to control by the national and state agencies. The court concluded that these aspects of ecclesiastical control did not make the national or state church agencies liable for the elder’s actions. It noted that the elder received no compensation from either the national or state agency, and that he had been elected rather than appointed to his office. It then observed:

[The elder] was not an employee of [the national, state, or district agencies]. [The national and state agencies] had no control over [the district]. [The national and state agencies] had no right to control where the [district] meetings were held, when they were held, who held them, topics that were covered, advertising of the meeting, or any other aspect of these meetings. [The national and state agencies] further had nothing to do with the fliers that [the elder] was distributing at the time of the accident. [The elder] controlled the distribution of the fliers. [He] made the initial decision to deliver the fliers in the first place. [He] also selected who would receive them and when he would deliver them. [He] had no salary, no set hours, no vacation or sick leave, and no bosses or supervisors in his role as chairman of [the district]. Furthermore, [he] supplied his own vehicle and was not reimbursed for gas or mileage …. [T]he administrator of [the national church] testified that losing credentials had to do with the minister’s spiritual activity and moral standing and had no bearing whatsoever on what he does as chairman of [the district]. [The administrator] also testified that [the elder’s] title as elder had nothing to do with [the district]. He further testified that [the elder] controlled his own activity, and was not employed by [the national or state agencies] and further stated that, if the title of elder was taken away from [the elder] he could still serve as the chairman of [the district].

[A bishop] testified that [the national and state agencies] were not involved in any way in the daily operations of [the district]. He further testified that [the district] had its own budget and that [state agency] could not vote on who was elected as chairman for [the district]. [The bishop] also testified that [the national and state agencies] required nothing of the [the district] and that donations of money were not a requirement.

The court then expanded its ruling to address the issue of agency. While this is an entirely separate issue from respondeat superior, the court felt it necessary to address this potential basis of liability as well, even though the victims apparently had not raised it. The court observed:

It is crucial to note that [the victims] focus on whether or not [the elder’s] activities financially benefit [the national and state agencies]. However, whether or not an activity benefits another is not the test for agency; rather, the crucial element is that of control. [A national official] testified that no one had the right to tell [the elder] how to perform his function or position as chairman of [the district]. [The bishop] testified that [the district] had no authority to do anything to a leader of [the district] and that [the state agency] was powerless to do anything about members who were not contributing financially. The only authority that [the state agency] would have over [an elder] would be to revoke his license if he was violating the basic tenants of [the church]. Again, the testimony was unanimous that [the elder’s] role as an elder had nothing to do with his role as chairman of [the district].

In the instant action, it is clear that [the elder] was not receiving any compensation as an employee. Furthermore, it is also clear that [the state agency] did not supply [him] with the car or the fliers or any of the tools necessary to complete the promotion of this fellowship meeting. [The state agency] did not control the details and quality of [the elder’s] work, the hours that [he] worked, the route that he was travelling, or his length of employment. Accordingly … this court agrees that reasonable minds could only conclude that [the elder] was not the agent of either [the national or state agency]. Accordingly, the trial court properly found that [these agencies] were not liable for the acts of [the elder].

This case will be useful to any denominational agency that is sued as a result of the actions of affiliated clergy. The fact that a denominational agency may exercise ecclesiastical control over a minister is not enough to make the agency legally responsible for the minister’s actions. Nye v. Kemp, 646 N.E.2d 262 (Ohio App. 10 Dist. 1994). [ Clergy Status—Employee or Self-employed—Legal Liability, Legal Liability—Negligence, Vicarious Liability for the Wrongs of Employees, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]

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