Personal Injuries on Church Property and During Church Activities

A federal court in New York ruled that an “auto exclusion” in a church insurance policy left a church without insurance to cover the death of one child and serious injuries to another.

Richards v. Princeton Insurance Company, 178 F. Supp.2d 386 (S.D.N.Y. 2002)

Key point 10-11. A church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries resulting from a failure to exercise adequate supervision of its programs and activities.

Negligence as a Basis for Liability

A federal court in New York ruled that an "auto exclusion" in a church insurance policy left a church without insurance to cover the death of one child and serious injuries to another as a result of an accident involving a rented bus.

A church youth group went on a trip in a rented bus. After arriving at the destination, some members of the youth group entered the bus while it was parked and unattended. Once inside, they accidentally disengaged the parking brake and caused the bus to roll down a hill, killing one member of the youth group and seriously injuring another. Parents of the victims sued the bus company as well as the church.

The parents claimed that the church was responsible for the accident because it "negligently, carelessly and recklessly supervising the boys who were alone on the bus when the parking brake was released; in permitting the four minors to board the bus when no driver or other adult was present; in failing to properly monitor and control the four boys who entered the bus; and failing to keep a proper lookout over the children; in failing to instruct its students not to board a school bus unsupervised."

The church had a comprehensive general liability policy that required the insurer to "pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of bodily injury or property damage to which this insurance applies." However, the policy contained an "auto exclusion" for "bodily injury or property damage arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any auto owned or operated by or rented or loaned to any insured." The insurer claimed that the lawsuit against the church was not covered by the insurance policy because of the auto exclusion.

The church insisted that the auto exclusion did not apply because it chartered the bus, and did not own, operate, or rent the bus. It also asserted that the basis of the lawsuit was the church's alleged negligent supervision of the boys who entered the bus and released the parking brake, and that a negligent supervision claim was not excluded by the auto exclusion. The court disagreed, noting that the church's argument "would require an analytical stretch that strains the common sense meaning of common words and thus tears at the fabric of law."

The court noted that the auto exclusion applied to bodily injury "arising out of" the ownership, maintenance, and use of an automobile, and it concluded that the term "arising out of" must be interpreted "in a broad and comprehensive sense to mean originating from or growing out of the use of the automobile." The court concluded that the accident "arose out of" the use of the bus, and therefore the exclusion applied:

There was a substantial connection between the church's use of the bus in question and the victims' injuries and death. Specifically, the record indicates that the church hired the bus and driver for use on a field trip. The bus was a necessary element of the school trip, without which the church would have been unable to travel [to the destination]. That use presumably began at the commencement of the trip, when the bus was available and accessible to the church, and remained continuous for so long as the church, under the terms of the rental, had some measure of dominion or control over the availability of the vehicle for the purpose covered by the agreement. That the bus was not in operation transporting passengers on the road, but rather was parked following the first part of the trip, did not render it less subject to the church's use.

In fact, the church availed itself of the bus's travel and stationary storage capacity by permitting children to return to, and wait inside, the bus. Access to the bus merely for the purpose of waiting in it for any legitimate reason would constitute as much "use" of the vehicle as actual conveyance of passengers and goods from one point to another.

On the bus, as the parents allege, the children presumably disengaged the parking brake and the bus rolled down the hill to cause the injuries. That the children did not wait on the bus in an orderly manner is to be expected; it is common experience that children often act rambunctiously on school buses.

Accordingly, the court concludes that the church's use of the bus pursuant to their rental agreement, and the church's supervision of children during the trip, are inseparably intertwined, so that the victims' injuries and death here asserted undoubtedly arose out of the church's use of the bus during the trip.

The court also rejected the church's claim that it had chartered, not rented, the bus in question and therefore the auto exclusion did not apply. It noted that "any distinction between a charter and rental is a distinction without a difference."

. Church leaders in this case may have assumed that the church's comprehensive general liability policy covered injuries resulting from the use of vehicles. If so, this was a costly mistake that left the church without insurance to cover defense costs, and a jury verdict, in a case involving the death of one child and serious injuries to another. The potential verdict in this case could be substantial, and the same is true of legal fees.

What lesson can be learned from such a case? Church leaders must review their insurance coverages periodically to be sure there are no "gaps" that might expose the church to a substantial uninsured risk. The church had purchased a comprehensive general liability policy, but this policy excluded any claims associated with the use of an automobile or other vehicle. A comprehensive general liability policy usually is purchased to cover risks arising out of the use or possession of property, and may exclude injuries resulting from the use of vehicles.

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