Personal Injuries on Church Property and During Church Activities – Part 2

A California court ruled that a school was liable for the death of an 11-year-old student who died of an asthma attack during school hours.

Church Law and Tax2003-07-01

Personal injuries on church property and during church activities – Part 2

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 California court ruled that a school was liable for the death of an 11-year-old student who died of an asthma attack during school hours before paramedics arrived. A fifth grade student (Justin) had severe asthma. Pursuant to school policy, all student medications had to be stored in a place that was inaccessible to other students. Justin and his mother understood this to mean that he could not carry his broncialdilater inhaler (used to treat asthma) on his person. The policy also required that students who needed to take medication during school hours had to have a doctor’s order and a parent’s authorization. Pursuant to this policy, Justin’s inhaler was kept in the school office. When he had to use it, he was assisted by school staff. One day, during school, Justin left his classroom to use the restroom. Minutes later he appeared in the school office exhibiting symptoms of a severe asthma attack. The school secretary attempted to assist Justin, but he collapsed. Emergency personnel were summoned, but to no avail. Justin died later that afternoon. Justin’s mother sued the school, seeking money damages for her son’s death. She claimed that the school had been negligent in training its staff and in its policy of making medications inaccessible to children. A jury awarded the mother $9 million. A state appeals court affirmed the jury’s conclusion that the school’s negligence caused Justin’s death. However, it reduced the $9 million verdict to $2.25 million.

Application. Many churches have children on their premises who have asthma. In some cases, these children may be on church premises without their parents. This case demonstrates that schools, as well as churches, face potentially astronomical damages if a child dies of an emergency medical condition due to an inadequate response. In order to reduce the risk of deaths caused by an untreated asthma attack or other medical condition, church leaders should consider several options, including the following: (1) Periodically give parents the opportunity to inform church leaders of any medical conditions their children may have that could require immediate and professional assistance. (2) Discuss with parents how such medical emergencies should be handled. Have them provide the church with a written list of instructions. (3) Ask parents how they want medical emergencies involving their children handled if the parents are not available. For example, what if an emergency occurs during an overnight activity when the parents are not present? (4) Consult with medical professionals regarding the appropriate response to medical conditions disclosed by parents. (5) Ask local school personnel to explain their policy for responding to children’s medical emergencies. Gonzalez v. Hanford Elementary School District, 2002 WL 1023719 (Cal. App. 2002).

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