A Florida court ruled that a church was not liable for catastrophic injuries suffered by a student enrolled in the church’s private school, who became intoxicated at an off-site school party and slammed into a tree while driving home. This case is important, since it addresses a common question—the liability of a school or church for injuries occurring during off-site activities.
Several students at a church-operated secondary school (the “School”) received cards inviting them to an “end-of-the-year party” at the home of two of the students. On some of the cards a bottle of liquor was faintly visible in the background. The cards were not prepared or distributed by the school, its faculty, or administration.
On the morning before the party, the school principal brought the two students (brothers) hosting the party at their home into his office so he could question them. The students told him that their parents would be at the party as chaperones.
School was dismissed for the year at noon on the last day of classes. Students began to arrive at the home where the party was to take place between 1 and 1:30 p.m. The mother of the “hosting” students arrived at the home sometime between 1:45 and 3:30 p.m., but went to her room and stayed there with the blinds drawn. Her husband joined her. Neither parent called the police or attempted to stop the party at any time.
Alcohol was consumed in the house and in cars. One student (the “victim”) and a classmate, though minors, had obtained two twelve-packs of beer and a bottle of vodka from a convenience store and arrived at the party at 2:30 p.m. The victim and the classmate drank in the victim’s car for an hour, and then went into the party with the remainder of their alcoholic drinks.
At about 4 p.m., the school’s principal and another school employee arrived at the party. The principal wanted to be sure that things were okay, and that the parents were present. After a few minutes, the principal and the other school employee left and returned to the school. They did not notify police, visit the back of the home, call any parents (including the owners of the home at which the party was underway), consume or provide alcohol, participate in the party themselves, or direct any students to leave.
Some thirty to forty-five minutes after the principal and school employee left the home where the party was in progress, the victim and his friend got into the victim’s car and drove away. Several miles away from the party and from the school, the vehicle struck a tree (traveling in a residential area at a speed estimated by police to have been 100 miles per hour) and split in half, instantly killing the friend and catastrophically injuring the victim. Two hours after the accident, the victim had a blood alcohol level of .09 percent (a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher subjects the vehicle operator to a criminal charge of driving while under the influence). The victim is now a quadriplegic, and he suffered traumatic brain injury as well.
The School’s parent and student handbook contained a section entitled “Outside (Home) Parties,” which states:
Parents should be positive that responsible adults properly supervise activities that their child attends. We recommend the parents call the hosting family to ensure the activity has been planned for their home and that they plan to chaperone the event. In advance, if the school becomes aware of any party that involves illegal or immoral activities we will inform the proper authorities. We would ask that any parent who learns of any such party or event contact the administration so we could help prevent any tragedy that might result. The School will not be responsible for any event that is not officially sanctioned by the Administration. We also strongly discourage allowing students to stay out after any official function is completed, or to rent facilities after any function, especially a dance or prom.
The handbook also contains a substance abuse policy applicable to alcoholic beverages that prohibited the use or possession of such beverages “by any student on school property or while attending or participating in any school sponsored activity or at any time the student is wearing a school uniform.” The consequences of a violation were specified: “Transgression of this rule will result in disciplinary action, which may include dismissal from school, even for a first offense.”
Another section stated:
The use, possession, or sale of alcoholic beverages or drugs is prohibited at all times on school premises before, during or after school hours or at school-sponsored events. Any student who appears to have consumed alcoholic beverages, used drugs, distributed drugs, or any student who brings such substances on the school premises or place of a school sponsored function is subject to dismissal from school, even for a first offense. The determination of “use” will by necessity be a judgmental decision by any staff or faculty member who may observe the behavior.
The victim and his parents (the “plaintiffs”) sued the school, the religious diocese that allegedly controlled the school, the school’s principal, the parents of the two students who hosted the party, and the convenience store that sold the alcohol to the victim and his friend. The plaintiffs settled with, or dismissed, all of the defendants except the school and diocese (the “defendants”).
The jury rendered a verdict awarding more than $55 million in damages, apportioning 53 percent of the negligence to the plaintiffs, 25 percent to the school, and 20 percent to the parents at whose home the party took place. The trial court allowed certain setoffs and ultimately entered an amended final judgment against the school and diocese for $13 million.
the appeals court’s ruling
The court began its opinion by describing two rules that are used in deciding if a school (or church, or any other youth-serving organization) is legally responsible for injuries to students during off-premises activities:
- School-sponsored events. A school may be responsible for injuries to students during an offsite “school sponsored” event. The court noted that the “sponsor” of an event is one who pays for it or takes responsibility for it. In this case, “no resources of the school were used to conduct the party. High schools may be said to sponsor a prom away from the school premises, but the event is on official school calendars; faculty and staff ordinarily attend and chaperone; and the boundaries of liability are normally the boundaries of the school-sponsored venue.”
- School-related events. The court noted that the broader category of school-related events “requires some connection to the school’s academic and extracurricular programs. A school athletic team’s participation in a scheduled competition at another location is obviously school related.” The court referred to a prior case in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a school club’s off-premises meeting was school-related, subjecting the school to liability for negligence. Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla.1982). In that case, the activity that caused a student’s tragic injury was officially prohibited by the school (a hazing ceremony). The school’s duty of supervision extended to the activity because the club in question was established and officially sponsored by the school, the school had reserved to itself the authority to control the activities of the club, and the club had a faculty adviser.
In this case, however, there was no club “recognized, endorsed, or supervised in any way by the school. The off-premises activity was planned, hosted, and attended by a collection of students having no name, group identity known to the school, or school related purpose. Of the students attending, only two had been firmly identified (the students whose address was listed on the invitation) by the school, and those two had told the school that their parents would be present. The two student hosts did not ask for or obtain the school’s permission to conduct the event, and the academic school year was complete when the students left the school premises (before the event began).”
The court stressed that “mere knowledge of the off-premises party is not a basis for liability.” But, it acknowledged that two additional facts needed to be addressed: the school handbook and the visit by the principal and another school employee to the off-premises residence at which the party took place. With regard to the “Parent and School Handbook” section on “Outside (Home) Parties,” the plaintiffs alleged that the school undertook to notify “the proper legal authorities” because the school became aware, in advance, that the party “involved illegal or immoral activities.” The court disagreed, noting that the school disclaimed responsibility for unauthorized home parties in an all-capitalized disclaimer in the same section: “The school will not be responsible for any event that is not officially sanctioned by the Administration.” The party in this case “was not officially sanctioned.” In addition, “the school’s policy in the handbook does not change the fact that the incident occurred at a time when the school had no duty to supervise the students” since it occurred after the end of the school year.
With regard to the visit to the off-premises party site by the principal and employee, “neither of these visitors undertook a special duty to care for [the victim]. The principal and employee were not invitees of the owners of the residence, and they never spoke to the student hosts’ mother. They did not offer a ride to anyone, offer to call [the victim’s] parents, take his keys, or otherwise render services to him or his parents. Nor was he under these visitors’ authority, control, or supervision. School was out.”
The court concluded its opinion with these words: “No conscientious juror or judge could (or can now) feel anything but the deepest sympathy for the tragic results of [the victim’s] accident. But our legal system requires more than heartfelt sympathy and demonstrable damages as predicates for the compensation of injured persons …. The parent and student handbook provisions, and the visit by the principal and employee to the residence where the party was underway … were insufficient as a matter of law to impose upon the school a duty to supervise, or a duty … regarding [the victim’s] acquisition and consumption of alcohol, attendance at the party, and fatal decision to get behind the wheel.”
Application. It is common for members of a church’s youth group to conduct activities off of church premises. Such activities may involve worship or Bible study, parties, or recreational activities. In addition, church-operated schools conduct a variety of off-site activities, including club activities and sports teams. Is a church legally responsible for injuries sustained by minors before, during, or after such off-site activities? This case provides helpful guidance. Here are several points to note:
1. Mere knowledge of an off-premises activity is not necessarily a basis for liability. There must be something more. The court concluded that liability may arise for either a “sponsored” event or a “related” event.
2. A school, church, or other youth-serving charity may be responsible for injuries to minors during an off-site “sponsored” event. The court noted that the characteristics of a “sponsor” of an event include the following: (1) A sponsor pays for it or takes responsibility for the event; (2) the event is on its official calendar; (3) one or more of the sponsor’s employees typically attend as chaperones.
3. The court also noted that a school can be liable for injuries to students during “school related” events that involve “some connection to the school’s academic and extracurricular programs.” As examples, the court cited a school athletic team’s participation in a scheduled competition at another location, or a school club’s off-premises meeting. The court noted that the school’s duty of supervision extends to such activities if the group is officially sponsored by the school and the school reserved the authority to control its activities. The key point is this—while an event may not be officially sponsored by a church, the church may still be liable for injuries to minors who participate in the event if it is “church related” in the sense that the minors are participating in a group that is church-sponsored and subject to the church’s supervision and control.
The court concluded that the victim in this case was not injured in the course of a school-related event. It cited the following factors in reaching this conclusion:
- There was no extracurricular or student “organization” over which the school or principal could have exercised control, and so there was no duty to do so.
- There was no “club” that had been recognized, endorsed, or supervised in any way by the school.
- The off-premises activity was planned, hosted, and attended by a collection of students “having no name, group identity known to the school, or school related purpose.”
- The two student “hosts” did not ask for, or obtain, the school’s permission to conduct the event, and the academic school year was complete when the students left the school premises (before the event began).
4. The court referred to the following cases:
- Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982). A school club’s off-premises meeting was school-related, subjecting the school to liability for negligence. The activity that caused a student’s tragic injury was officially prohibited by the school (a hazing ceremony). The school’s duty of supervision extended to the activity, however, because the school had authorized and sponsored the club, reserved to itself the authority to control the activities of the club, and the club had a faculty adviser.
- Fernandez v. Florida National College, Inc., 925 So.2d 1096 (Fla. App. 2006). A college was not responsible for a tragic accident during an off-campus excursion to celebrate the end of the school year because the teacher who drove the group did so in his individual capacity, after classes were officially concluded, and without authorization by the school.
- Rhea v. Grandview School District, 694 P.2d 666 (1985). A high school senior class met in the school gymnasium just before graduation. Before their faculty adviser joined the group, the students planned an off-campus party to be held on one of the “release” days when seniors were not required to attend school. When the faculty adviser learned that the students were planning to bring beer to the party, he “admonished the students and reported the incident to the principal.” One of the seniors who attended the party consumed alcoholic beverages and was killed instantly in a collision while driving her car home. At the time of her death, the student’s blood alcohol level was .13 percent. In the ensuing lawsuit, the trial court and a Washington state appeals court both ruled in favor of the school despite the principal’s and faculty adviser’s knowledge and inaction. The appeals court followed other cases determining that “the nexus between an assertion of the school district’s authority and potential tort liability springs from the exercise or assumption of control and supervision over [a student] organization and its activities by the appropriate agents of the school district.”
5. The court noted that the school disclaimed responsibility for unauthorized home parties in an all-capitalized disclaimer in its parent and student handbook: “The school will not be responsible for any event that is not officially sanctioned by the Administration.” The party in this case “was not officially sanctioned.” In addition, “the school’s policy in the handbook does not change the fact that the incident occurred at a time when the school had no duty to supervise the students” since it occurred after the end of the school year. Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School, Inc. v. Maynoldi, 30 So.3d 533 (Fla. App. 2010).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, May/June 2011.