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 Michigan court ruled that a church was liable on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries sustained by a small boy who slipped and fell off of a piece of exercise equipment on the church's property. A young boy (the "victim") attended a church-based head start program. One day, when the class was outdoors, the victim wandered away from the other children to play on the monkey bars. He was not noticed by the teacher's assistant assigned to his class. While playing on the monkey bars, the victim fell and broke his arm. His mother sued the church, claiming that her son's injury was caused by the church's negligent supervision. A trial court dismissed that case, concluding that the victim's fall and injury "did not occur as a result of any negligence of any individual." A state appeals court concluded that there was enough evidence of negligence that the case should not have been dismissed. The court observed, "A teacher owes a duty to exercise reasonable care over students in his or her charge …. The evidence showed that three teachers were on the playground. The victim wandered away from the group unnoticed by the assistant assigned to his class, climbed on the monkey bars, fell and was injured. There was no evidence that the other teachers were supervising him. Such evidence was sufficient to create a question as to the issue of negligent supervision. It is plausible that the victim would not have wandered off from the group or at least not gone on the monkey bars unsupervised had there been proper supervision."
One judge dissented from the court's ruling. Calling the case a "frivolous action," he observed, "Here, three adults were supervising fifteen children at the time of the accident. The ratio required by the state Department of Consumer and Industry Services is one caregiver present for every ten children …. The child's sudden and unexpected action of losing his grasp of the monkey bars was a true accident. The child fell off the playground equipment owned by the church. There's no allegation of any defect in the equipment. This is an accident. The incident did not occur as a result of any negligence of any individual." The dissenting judge also noted that the church was not guilty of negligence since "greater supervision would not have prevented the victim from losing his grasp of the monkey bars."
. This case illustrates the difficulty often encountered by the courts in applying the principle of negligent supervision. It is true that churches have a duty to exercise reasonable care with regard to the supervision of minors in their custody, and a breach of that duty constitutes negligent supervision for which the church may be liable should an injury occur. However, it is often difficult to define the term "reasonable care." This case is a good example. The evidence showed that no amount of supervision would have prevented the victim from falling from the monkey bars, and so it is difficult to disagree with the trial court's conclusion that the church was not negligent. Daniels v. New St. Paul Tabernacle Church, 2003 WL 1984453 (Mich. App. 2003).