• Key point: Volunteer youth workers must act with reasonable care in the supervision of children. However, this does not mean that they are responsible for every injury that occurs to a child. If a child is injured as a result of disobedience to a worker’s clear instructions, the worker may not be responsible for injuries that result.
• In a case that will be relevant to every volunteer youth worker, a New Mexico court concluded that a Little League coach was not responsible for the death of a teenage boy who fell from the back of a truck while being transported to a baseball field. A Little League baseball team assembled for practice at a baseball field and was informed by park officials to use another field a short distance away. In order to travel to the second field the team had to ride in two vehicles. One vehicle was owned by the coach, but it was not big enough for all the boys. One of the older players had a truck with a camper on the back, and he volunteered to take the boys who could not fit in the coach’s vehicle. Three boys asked the coach if they could ride on the back bumper of the truck but the coach refused and instructed them to crawl inside the camper. As the coach was driving away he noticed that the three boys were standing beside the truck with the camper door open. Assuming that his instructions were being followed, he drove to the other field about a half of a mile away on a dirt road without traffic. When the coach drove away the boys closed the camper door and stood on top of the truck’s back bumper. There was nothing on the back of the truck or camper shell for the boys to grab firmly. The truck proceeded to the other field. Along the way, two of the boys fell off the bumper. One was killed and the other seriously injured. The parents of the deceased boy sued the coach and the Little League, arguing that they had negligently supervised the boys and that their negligence was the cause of their son’s death. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit and the parents appealed. A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. It agreed with the trial court that the coach had not been negligent. And, since the coach had not been negligent the case against the Little League had to be dismissed as well. In finding that the coach was not negligent the court relied on the following factors (these will be helpful for church leaders to keep in mind in evaluating the risk to their own volunteers): (1) The coach had explicitly warned the boys not to ride on the truck’s back bumper. (2) The boys had never before disobeyed the coach or engaged in activities that would lead him to believe they would not obey him. (3) The coach waited until he saw one of the boys open the camper door before he drove away. (4) The coach had no reason to believe that the boy who drove the truck was an unsafe driver. (5) The vehicles had to travel only a half of a mile on a dirt road without traffic. (6) The court quoted with approval from a similar case: “The reasonableness of [the coach’s] conduct is especially clear in light of the social utility of said conduct—namely, the value of the services of volunteers in a youth sports program to the community in which they participate.” (7) The court referred to another case finding that a teacher was not responsible for injuries sustained by a student in a woodworking class. The court in the other case noted that it was impossible for a teacher to personally supervise each student under his care every moment of the school day, and concluded that “a teacher must necessarily rely, to some extent, on the responsibility and maturity of his students to conduct themselves in a proper and safe manner.” Similarly, the court referred to another case in which a court concluded that ordinary care on the part of a teacher does not require having each student constantly in sight, since such a standard would be impossible.
This case is important for a number of reasons. First, it illustrates the potential liability of volunteer leaders for injuries occurring to minors under their supervision. Second, it demonstrates that volunteer workers will not be responsible for every death or injury that occurs. If teenagers are injured because they violate a volunteer worker’s explicit instructions, and the volunteer has no reason to believe that the instructions will not be obeyed, this may be enough to refute a charge of negligence. Supporting this conclusion are court decisions recognizing that youth workers cannot possibly keep every child in sight at all times, that older children have some responsibility to conduct themselves in a safe manner, and, that the valuable community service provided by volunteer workers necessitates a clear showing of negligence. Marquez v. Gomez, 866 P.2d 354 (N.M. App. 1993).
See Also: Negligent Supervision
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