Personal Injuries on Church Property and During Church Activities

A New York court ruled that a religious organization was not responsible for a spontaneous attack inflicted by an adolescent male.

Church Law and Tax2005-05-01

Personal injuries on church property or during church activities

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 New York court ruled that a religious organization was not responsible for a spontaneous attack inflicted by an adolescent male against a 10-year-old boy while on a camping trip. A 10-year-old boy was assaulted by a fellow camper in a bunkhouse they shared at a summer camp operated by a religious organization. The victim’s mother sued the religious organization, claiming that it was responsible for her son’s injuries on the basis of negligent supervision and a failure to provide proper medical care after the assault. The religious organization insisted that it was not liable since the victim’s injuries were the result of a “spontaneous altercation” that could not have been anticipated or prevented by camp officials. The court began its opinion by observing that “the standard of care for persons having children entrusted to their care … is that of a reasonably prudent parent. In a camp setting constant supervision is neither feasible nor desirable because one of the benefits of such an institution is to inculcate self-reliance in the campers which an overly protective supervision would destroy. Camps, like schools, are not insurers of safety for they cannot reasonably be expected to continuously supervise and control all movements and activities of the campers. In order to establish a breach of the duty to provide adequate supervision a plaintiff must show that the camp authorities had sufficient specific knowledge or notice of the dangerous conduct which caused the injury; that is, that the third-party acts could have reasonably been anticipated.”

The court concluded that there was no evidence that the religious organization or camp officials had “knowledge constituting notice of a particular danger to the victim prior to the incident or that the incident that caused the victim’s injuries was anything other than a sudden, unanticipated independent act by a fellow camper. There is also no evidence that the camp’s agents had any actual or constructive notice that the victim was engaged in a prohibited activity or that they had a reasonable opportunity to prevent its continuance prior to the subject altercation. The victim, by his own admission, conceded that he notified none of the camp’s personnel concerning his fears of an impending confrontation with the attacker. Therefore … the need for additional supervision of prior to the incident could not have been apprehended.”

Application. The case illustrates two important points. First, the law does not impose a duty of “constant supervision” on camps (and churches). Only a reasonable effort to supervise events is required. Second, the duty to supervise increases with knowledge of potential risks. Had the camp leaders in this case been aware of information suggesting that the attacker was a danger to other campers, then they would have had an increased duty to supervise which may have been abridged by their acts or failure to act. Murawski v. Camp Nagella, 2004 WL 2112625 (N.Y.Sup. 2004).

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