• Key point 10-18.3. There are several legal defenses available to a denominational agency that is sued as a result of the acts or obligations of affiliated clergy and churches. These include a lack of temporal control over clergy and churches; a lack of official notice of a minister's prior wrongdoing in accordance with the denomination's governing documents; lack of an agency relationship; the prohibition by the first amendment of any attempt by the civil courts to impose liability on religious organizations in a way that would threaten or alter their polity; and elimination or modification of the principle of joint and several liability.
* A federal court in Louisiana ruled that a church in Florida was not responsible for the liabilities of a church in Louisiana because it did not exercise sufficient control for liability to be imposed. Pastor Andy established an urban church in Florida. The congregation consisted mostly of homeless persons, former prostitutes and drug addicts. One of the church members later became a pastor (Pastor Bill), and moved to Louisiana and asked Pastor Andy to help him start a church like the one in Florida. Pastor Andy traveled to New Orleans, leased a building, and then subleased it to Pastor Bill who started a church patterned after the one in Florida. A few months later, Pastor Bill and his wife, along with some church members, drove to Atlanta for a revival service. On the return trip, the car was involved in an accident and one of the church members (the "plaintiff") was injured. The plaintiff sued Pastor Bill (who was driving the car), and the Florida church. He did not sue the Louisiana church. He claimed that the Florida church was so "interrelated" with the Louisiana church that it should be "vicariously liable" for the plaintiff's injuries.
A federal district court ruled that the Florida church could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of the Louisiana church. It observed,
In cases where vicarious liability is sought to be imposed, the imposition of such liability is unwarranted in the absence of evidence that shows that one entity, the purported principal, dominates or controls the everyday secular affairs of the other entity. Courts will inquire as to the real nature of the relationship and the degree of control exercised or ability to control. It is not sufficient for purposes of imposing vicarious liability, that there exists merely some affiliation between churches; affiliation and contact between churches of the same denomination is expected. Instead there must exist control, or the express right to control, by one church over the daily secular and financial affairs of another. Absent factual support of such control, vicarious liability cannot be imposed ….
[The evidence] demonstrates that, although the Florida church and Louisiana church share a common name, they operate independently. The two churches do, however, have ties. Pastor Bill was taught and ordained by Pastor Andy. Pastor Bill leases the buildings that he uses for his church from Pastor Andy. Pastor Bill regularly sends "tithes" to the Florida church but is not required to do so by the Florida church. However, the mere fact of contributions by the Louisiana church to the Florida church does not establish that there was a relationship between them such that the Florida church could be liable for the allegedly tortious conduct of a member of the Louisiana congregation. Pastor Bill testified that he also sends contributions to other churches. Pastor Bill modeled his ministry after the Florida church and considers Pastor Andy to be his "spiritual advisor."
The court noted that the two churches shared a common name ("Deeper Life"), and that Pastor Andy's website lists the Louisiana church as a church of the "Deeper Life Ministries." Even though the Florida church's website notes its affiliation with other churches throughout the country (including the Louisiana church), this website in no way demonstrates that the Florida church exercised day-to-day control over the Louisiana church." The court concluded,
In examining whether the Florida church exerts legal control over the Louisiana church, the court has examined these relevant facts. Pastor Bill's church is responsible for paying its own bills. He testified that neither he nor his church have ever received any funds from the Florida church. The Louisiana church received no administrative assistance from the Florida church. Neither Pastor Andy nor the Florida church provided Pastor Bill or the Louisiana church with a vehicle. There is no evidence that the articles of incorporation of either church allows expressly retained control or authority over the activities of the other. The Florida church has not, either in its articles of incorporation or any other documents brought to the court's attention, reserved any authority over any matter that may arise concerning the Louisiana church. The Florida church did not sponsor the Louisiana church's trip to the Atlanta revival nor did it exercise any control over who attended. Pastor Bill received no food or clothing for his church from the Florida church. The only "control" exercised by the Florida church over the Louisiana church was a requirement in the lease that the building in New Orleans be used as a place of worship. This lease contract was clearly a contract between a separate lessor and lessee. The "control" was nothing more than a restriction placed on the use of a building. Certainly if one controlled the other, there would be no need for a lease agreement.
The court finds that the Louisiana church operates independent of and beyond any daily control by the Florida church. Nothing submitted to the court suggests or supports the conclusion that the Florida church exercised supervision or control over the day-to-day activities of the Louisiana church. Absent this control, the Florida church cannot be held vicariously liable for alleged acts of negligence of a member of the congregation of the Louisiana church.
Application. The importance of this case is obvious. It is a recognition by a federal court that one religious corporation cannot be liable for the acts of another religious corporation "in the absence of evidence that shows that one entity dominates or controls the everyday secular affairs of the other entity." It is "not sufficient … that there exists merely some affiliation …. Instead there must exist control, or the express right to control, by one church over the daily secular and financial affairs of another." This is a difficult test to meet, as this case demonstrates. In this case, the following facts were not sufficient evidence of control to impose liability on the Florida church for the acts of the Louisiana church: (1) the two churches shared a common name; (2) Pastor Bill was taught and ordained by Pastor Andy; (3) Pastor Bill leased the building that he uses for his church from Pastor Andy; (4) Pastor Bill regularly sends "tithes" to the Florida church (although he is not required to do so by the Florida church); (5) Pastor Bill "modeled" his ministry after the Florida church and considers Pastor Andy to be his "spiritual advisor"; (6) Pastor Andy's website lists the Louisiana church as a church of the "Deeper Life Ministries."
The court mentioned the following facts in support of its conclusion that there was insufficient evidence of control to impose liability in the Florida church: (1) the Louisiana church is responsible for paying its own bills; (2) the Louisiana church has never received any funds from the Florida church; (3) the Louisiana church received no administrative assistance from the Florida church; (4) the Florida church did not provide the Louisiana church with a vehicle; (5) there was no evidence that the articles of incorporation of either church allows "expressly retained control or authority" over the activities of the other; (6) the Florida church has not, in its articles of incorporation or any other documents, "reserved any authority over any matter that may arise concerning the Louisiana church"; (7) the Florida church did not sponsor the Louisiana church's trip to the Atlanta revival nor did it exercise any control over who attended; (8) the Louisiana church received no food or clothing from the Florida church.
This case will be a useful precedent to cite when a church or denominational agency is sued as a result of the acts of another organization. Ferry v. Deeper Life Christian Church, 2002 WL 1974112 (E.D. La. 2002).
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