National Organizations’ Liability for Accidents by Local Affiliates

Recent Boy Scouts case provides helpful guidance for churches.

Wilson v. Boy Scouts of America, 784 F. Supp. 1422 (E.D. Mo. 1991)

Key point: National youth organizations are not necessarily legally responsible for injuries occurring to minors in the course of activities by local affiliates.

A federal court in Missouri issued a decision that will be of interest to denominational scouting and youth programs.

The parents of a boy scout who was electrocuted during a scouting activity sued the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). They alleged that their son's death was caused by the negligence of the local scout leaders, and that the BSA was legally responsible for this negligence on the basis of an "agency relationship" between local scout leaders and the national BSA. The court dismissed the case on the ground that there was no basis for imputing the negligence of a local leader to the national BSA organization.

The court began with a description of the organization of the BSA: "BSA issues charters to schools, churches, or civic organizations which authorize the organization to sponsor a local unit. Local volunteers form a patrol leaders' council to plan troop activities. BSA does not conduct or require any training for these adult volunteers. Troops do not need permission from BSA before undertaking activities."

In reaching its conclusion that the national BSA was not responsible for the alleged negligence of a local scout leader, the court quoted from a decision in another case: "[The BSA] is an umbrella organization; it charters individual troops and, as part of that annual process of initial chartering and charter renewal, tries to assure itself that the troop will have responsible adult leadership. But it does not choose or in any way directly supervise the scoutmaster, who is selected by the troop. In these circumstances, it is generally held that the [BSA] is not vicariously liable for the negligence of the scoutmaster." McGarr v. Baltimore Area Council, 536 A.2d 728 (Md. App. 1988). The court then concluded:

The national organization . . . does not choose or directly supervise the scoutmaster or other volunteers at the troop level. . . . Plaintiffs [i.e., the victim's parents] have cited no case law holding BSA vicariously liable for the negligent acts of an unpaid volunteer. When courts have found local councils liable, the negligence occurred at a function actually sponsored and supervised by the liable organization. . . . Plaintiffs have produced no evidence that BSA had the right to control the volunteers' activities on the trip [during which the boy was killed]. While the plaintiffs can produce evidence that the volunteers were serving the general goals of scouting, they have not produced any evidence that Boy Scouts of America agreed to or even knew of the purpose, destination, an details of this particular scouting activity. . . . Plaintiffs contend the use of common uniforms, emblems, books, awards, and the scouting programs; a national insurance program; issuance of the national membership card and other printed materials locally; as well as other indicia of a relationship between BSA and local councils create a manifestation of authority upon which an innocent third party might reasonably rely. Plaintiffs also attach affidavits asserting their reliance on the manifestation that there was a single organization—BSA. However, plaintiffs fail to produce any evidence that BSA manifested in any way that it had direct control over the specific activities individual troops chose to do. The Boy Scout Handbook clearly states, "What the troop does is planned by the patrol leaders' council."

The organizational structure of the BSA keeps control of specific activities at the level closest to the actual troop. Plaintiffs produce no direct or circumstantial evidence to suggest that in this case BSA manifested control. Therefore summary judgement for BSA is appropriate on the issue of liability . . . . Furthermore, plaintiffs have produced no evidence that the national organization had a duty to control, supervise, or train volunteer leaders for the activity [during which the boy was killed].

This ruling will be of direct relevance to the national scouting and youth programs of religious denominations. It suggests that national organizations will not necessarily be legally responsible for accidents and injuries occurring during the activities of local affiliates, so long as the local volunteers (who allegedly caused or allowed an accident to occur) are not chosen or directly supervised by the national organization.

The court rejected the parents' claim that local volunteers are "agents" of BSA, since agency is based on evidence of a "right of control" and no such right existed. The court acknowledged that agency can be established by implication, when an organization leads others to believe that a person is acting on its behalf and subject to its control. The parents argued that an "implied agency" or "apparent agency" was established by the use of common uniforms and awards, and by the scouting program itself.

The court disagreed, noting that the parents had failed to produce any evidence that "BSA manifested in any way that it had direct control over the specific activities individual troops chose to do." It also quoted a provision from the Boy Scout Handbook that demonstrates a lack of control by the national organization over the activities of the local affiliates. Accordingly, it is unreasonable for persons to presume that local volunteers and troops are "agents" of the national organization, and therefore the negligence of local volunteers cannot be imputed to the national organization.

See also Sexual misconduct by clergy and church staff, Gallas v. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, 587 N.Y.S.2d 82 (Sup. 1989) and Samuels v. Southern Baptist Hospital 594 So.2d 571 (La. App. 4 Cir. 1992).

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