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 federal court in the District of Columbia ruled that a school could be responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for an assault committed by five of its students on another student during a field trip to a public park. A minor ("Eric") visited a park while on a field trip with his school. During the trip, Eric was assaulted, kicked, and beaten by five other students who were on a field trip to the same park from a different school. Eric’s parents sued the attackers’ school, claiming that its "negligent supervision" of the five students caused their son’s injuries. The school asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it had no duty to "provide a constant watch over its students during a school field trip in order to prevent a unforeseeable act of violence."
The court noted that while a school "is not the insurer of the complete safety of school children, nor is it strictly liable for any injuries which may occur to them," a school owes a duty to its students "to exercise reasonable and ordinary care for the protection of pupils to whom it provides an education." A school’s duty to supervise its students, however, is limited to "a reasonable duty to guard against foreseeable harm." This duty "continues to exist in the context of a field trip." The court further concluded that a school has a duty "to supervise its students to prevent foreseeable harm from occurring to members of the public while on a field trip." The court noted that it is not feasible for a school to provide "constant supervision" over its students to prevent harm to non-students, "nor is a school strictly liable for any injury that its students may cause as a result of lack of supervision." But a school’s duty to supervise its students "is particularly important in the context of field trips." The court observed,
The need for close supervision in the schoolhouse is intensified on field trips where opportunities abound to elude the watchful eyes of chaperones. Administrators and teachers have a duty to protect students from the misbehavior of other students. In the context of a field trip, we add to that burden the duty to protect the general population from student mischief … . The potential is limited only by the boundaries of the fertile imaginations of children who have a known proclivity to act impulsively without thought of the possibilities of danger. It is precisely this lack of mature judgment which makes supervision so vital.
As a result, the court declined the school’s request to dismiss the case.
Application. This case is directly relevant to churches. Church leaders should note the following points. First, the court acknowledged that schools (substitute "churches") are not "insurers" or guarantors of the safety of children, nor are they automatically liable for every injury that occurs. Second, while a school (or church) has a duty to provide reasonable supervision of its students, this duty only applies to foreseeable harm. Third, it is not feasible for a school (or church) to provide "constant supervision" of children. And fourth, the duty of supervision "intensifies" during field trips. This is an important point, since churches so often send children on "off campus" activities. Why is the need for supervision intensified during such activities? Because "opportunities abound to elude the watchful eyes of chaperones," and the potential is limited only by the boundaries of the fertile imaginations of children who have a known proclivity to act impulsively without thought of the possibilities of danger. It is precisely this lack of mature judgment which makes supervision so vital." These are excellent principles for church leaders to keep in mind when considering appropriate supervision for activities involving minors. Thomas v. City Lights School, Inc., 124 F.Supp.2d 707 (D.D.C. 2000).
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