National, Regional Denominational Agencies Not Legally Responsible for Child’s Brain Damage Incurred at Affiliated Church

Regional and national denominational agencies are not necessarily liable for deaths and injuries occurring on the property of affiliated churches.

Key point 10-18.2.
Most courts have refused to hold denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches, either because of First Amendment considerations or because the relationship between the denominational agency and affiliated church or minister is too remote to support liability.

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 Louisiana appeals court ruled that national and regional denominational agencies were not legally responsible for permanent brain damage suffered by a toddler who fell into a filled, uncovered baptistery in an affiliated church.

On December 19, 2013, a mother and her 22-month-old daughter attended a dinner at a church in their community. At some point during the dinner, the daughter was found submerged in the baptismal pool of the church. The child suffered a severe brain injury that has left her unable to walk, talk, or feed herself. The mother sued the church, and regional and national denominational agencies with which it was affiliated (the "regional church" and "national church") claiming that they had all been negligent in failing to guard the baptismal pool in any way and leaving the pool full of water. The pool is four feet deep. There are no doors or other barriers separating the pool from the general premises of the church and no cover over the pool or any other safety features.

The regional church and national church filed motions for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the mother's claims on the ground that neither had any responsibility for the employment of the church's pastor, nor was there any employer-employee or agency relationship between them and the local church sufficient to impose upon them any liability for the actions of the church. They each claimed that there were no genuine issues regarding their lack of supervision, governance, or control over the church, and, therefore, they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

In support of their motions for summary judgment, the regional church and national church pointed to the national church's constitution and bylaws, which clearly demonstrate that these two entities are separate and distinct from the local church. For example, the constitution states that each affiliated church

has the right of self-government … and shall have the power to choose or call its pastor, elect its official board, and transact all other business pertaining to its life as a local unit. It shall have the right to administer discipline to its members according to the Scriptures and its constitution or bylaws. It shall have the right to acquire and hold title to property, either through trustees or in its corporate name as a self-governing unit. The fact it is affiliated with [the national church] shall in no way destroy its rights as above stated or interfere with its sovereignty.

The national church's bylaws clarify that the limited "control" exercised by the national or regional churches over affiliated churches is limited to the approval or disapproval of "scriptural doctrine and conduct" and the revocation of a church's certificate of affiliation if deemed necessary. The national church's bylaws add:

Affiliated churches are deemed to be sovereign, autonomous, self-governing, and self-determining bodies, which have, by their sovereign, self-determining action in making application for and receiving recognition as [an] affiliated church, entered into an agreement … to be amenable to the [national and regional churches] in matters of doctrine and conduct.

An officer of the national church testified that affiliated churches are congregational in polity and that the denomination is a cooperative fellowship of independent and autonomous churches that have plenary control over their own properties. This officer testified that the national church has no authority to require churches to comply with any risk management recommendations, and that it lacks authority to supervise or control church property. An officer of the regional church testified that the denomination practices baptism by immersion, but stressed that neither the national church nor regional church controlled the setting for baptisms by immersion, which could be done anywhere the local pastor chooses. Further, this officer testified that the national and regional churches had no ownership of the property of local churches.

The trial court, in dismissing the mother's claims against the national and regional churches, relied on the following facts:

  • Neither had a master-servant or employment relationship with the local church or anyone employed by it.
  • There was no relationship between the national and regional churches, and the local church where the injury occurred, other than on matters of religious doctrine.
  • The national and regional churches never had any ownership, custody, or control of the local church.
  • All of the defendants were separately incorporated with their own officers and directors and with no common officers or directors.
  • All of the defendants were insured separately.
  • Each defendant oversees its own finances and hires its own employees free of any control from the other.
  • The baptistery involved in this accident, along with the building and land containing it, was owned solely by the local church.
  • The national church's constitution and bylaws show that the local churches have plenary control of their property.
  • The national and regional churches have never been involved in any jointly financed business venture with the local church.
  • The national and regional churches recognize the sovereign and self-governing status of affiliated churches including the right to acquire, use, and maintain property exclusively.

The trial court concluded that the mother had presented no evidence to controvert the evidence submitted by the national and regional churches, or which would indicate that they controlled the daily secular or financial affairs of the local church. Absent such evidence, the court concluded that there was no authority for finding them liable for injuries occurring in affiliated churches. It also found that the affidavits—the constitution and the bylaws—were "replete with references to the sovereign and autonomous nature of affiliated churches."

In dismissing the mother's claim that the national and regional churches, and all affiliated churches, comprised one "single-business enterprise" making any one defendant legally responsible for the acts and omissions of the others, the court noted that the single-business-enterprise doctrine was a theory for imposing liability where two or more business entities act as one. When corporations integrate their resources in operations to achieve a common business purpose, each business may be held liable for wrongful acts done in pursuit of that purpose. But the trial court found that the main focus of the relationship between the national and regional churches and local churches was doctrinal in nature. It found nothing to indicate that the two councils were responsible for maintaining the individual church's property.

The mother appealed the trial court's dismissal of her claims against the national and regional church. She alleged three bases of liability that the trial court had rejected:

Respondeat superior liability
Under Louisiana law, "masters" and employers are answerable for the damage occasioned by their servants in the course of their employment. This form of liability is known as respondeat superior (the superior, or employer, responds). A servant is a person employed to perform services in the affairs of another and who, with respect to the physical conduct in the performance of the services, is subject to the other's control or right to control. The word servant includes anyone who performs continuous service for another and whose physical movements are subject to the control or right to control of the other as to the manner of performing the service. The single, most important factor to consider in deciding whether the master-servant relationship exists is the right of the employer to control the work of the servant or employee. The right of control necessarily encompasses "supervision, selection and engagement, payment of wages or salary and the power to dismiss."

The appeals court concluded that the national and regional churches
had no right under the constitution and bylaws to control the property of [the church] or to dictate what actions were taken on a day-to-day basis at the church. The individual churches own the property on which the churches are located, insure them individually and have control over who they employ as their pastors. Although the pastors [are licensed and ordained by the denomination] which has the right to intervene when a pastor has acted in an inappropriate manner or contrary to the teachings of the church, all the evidence presented leads to the conclusion that the local churches are sovereign and autonomous. The national and regional churches have no control over the daily secular or financial aspects of the local church; and, therefore, there is no master-servant relationship between them and the church.

Single-business enterprise
The appeals court concluded that the trial court correctly rejected "single-business enterprise" as a basis of liability:
The single-business-enterprise doctrine is a theory for imposing liability where two or more business entities act as one. Generally, under this doctrine, when corporations integrate their resources in operations to achieve a common business purpose, each business may be held liable for wrongful acts done in pursuit of that purpose ….

When determining whether a corporation is an alter ego, agent, tool or instrumentality of another corporation, the court is required to look to the substance of the corporate structure rather than its form. The courts have considered various factors to support an argument that a group of entities constitute a single-business enterprise. These factors can include such things as … common directors or officers; unified administrative control of corporations whose business functions are similar or supplementary; directors and officers of one corporation acting independently in the interest of that corporation; corporation financing another corporation; corporation paying the salaries and other expenses or losses of another corporation; receiving no business other than that given to it by its affiliated corporations; corporation using the property of another corporation as its own; noncompliance with corporate formalities; and common employees and services rendered by the employees of one corporation on behalf of another corporation. This list is illustrative and is not intended as an exhaustive list of relevant factors. No one factor is dispositive of the issue of single-business enterprise.

The court concluded that the national and regional churches
presented evidence in the form of the constitution and bylaws, as well as deposition testimony, which showed that [the church where the accident occurred] is a sovereign and autonomous entity over which they had no control. The national and regional churches are separately incorporated, as is each church, which becomes a part of the [denomination]. Judged by the substance of corporate structure rather than the form, the national and regional churches do not share officers and directors with local churches, do not pay the salaries of the local pastors, do not act independently on behalf of the local churches and do not insure the properties owned by the local churches. The mother presented no evidence to controvert that of the national and regional churches showing that there is no single-business enterprise between them. Therefore, there are no genuine issues of material fact remaining in this regard, and this assignment of error is without merit.

Unincorporated association
The mother further claimed that the national and regional churches, and local church, comprised an "unincorporated association" making each defendant fully liable for the acts of other defendants. In rejecting this novel theory, the court observed:
An unincorporated association … does not come into existence or commence merely by virtue of the fortuitous creation of a community of interest or the fact that a number of individuals have simply acted together; there must also be an agreement whereby two or more persons combine certain attributes to create a separate entity for a legitimate purpose. While the parties need not specifically intend or have knowledge of all the legal ramifications of juridical personality, they must at least conceive of their creation as a being or thing separate from themselves … .

Clearly, under the constitution and the bylaws, all three levels of the church are separate corporate entities, and the sovereign nature of the local churches is often reiterated. Through the constitution and the bylaws, the national church has devised a method by which … individual churches are created to act autonomously and free of the national and regional churches in all but doctrinal theory. Therefore, there is no agreement whereby two or more persons combine certain attributes to create a separate entity for a legitimate purpose in regard to the [denomination] and there is no unincorporated association.

What this means for churches

This tragic case is illustrative for the following reasons:

1. It demonstrates the risks involved in maintaining filled, uncovered baptisteries on church premises.

2. It demonstrates that regional and national denominational agencies are not necessarily liable for deaths and injuries occurring on the property of affiliated churches. In this case, regional and national denominational agencies were not liable for the injuries sustained by the toddler who fell into the church baptistery because:

Most importantly, the denomination's constitution and bylaws unequivocally described the independence and autonomy of affiliated churches, and the lack of any authority by regional and national denominational agencies to supervise or control affiliated churches or church properties. The language of a denominational agency's governing documents will often determine whether the agency is, or is not, vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of affiliated churches. Often, such documents are written without a legal review, and with no thought of legal liability, and this becomes apparent when the plaintiffs' attorneys seek to establish vicarious liability of a parent denominational agency based on ambiguous or technically imprecise language. This makes a periodic legal review of denominational governing documents a necessity.
The limited authority of the national and regional church over affiliated churches was limited to doctrinal fidelity, precluding liability based on respondeat superior, single-business enterprise, and an unincorporated association status. 185 So.3d 125 (La. App. 2016).

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