Personal Injuries on Church Property and During Church Activities – Part 5

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a school could be sued by the father of a ninth-grade boy who had been sent home alone on a bus after being caught smoking

Key point 10-06. A church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent selection for injuries resulting from the acts of a minister or other worker not involving sexual misconduct.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a school could be sued by the father of a ninth-grade boy who had been sent home alone on a bus after being caught smoking a cigarette in a hotel room while on an out-of-town school band trip. It is every youth pastor's nightmare to have a minor on an out-of-town trip who flagrantly violates the rules. In some cases, minors are sent home. Such a decision may expose a church to legal risk, no matter how justified it may seem. Consider a recent case involving a public school in Iowa. The school adopted a "zero tolerance" policy concerning students' use or possession of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. A ninth grader was caught with cigarettes while on an out-of-town school band trip in Texas, and was taken to a Greyhound bus station at midnight and placed on a bus for the trip home. The trip included stops and layovers in Dallas, Tulsa, Kansas City, Des Moines, and Iowa City. A teacher remarked that "if we hadn't acted on it, I'm afraid that we would have had other rules broken, possibly more serious rules, possibly more serious consequences."

The youngster survived the 1,100-mile journey, but his distraught father sued the school for "negligent endangerment" and other alleged wrongs. The boy's father never challenged school officials' right to punish his son for his misbehavior. He insisted, however, that in exercising its disciplinary function, the school and its employees breached a duty of due care for his son's safety and were guilty of negligent supervision. The school asserted that it had a wide latitude in disciplining students, especially while on field trips, and that its actions were a legitimate exercise of discipline. It noted that school field trips often present greater, not lesser, challenges to school officials trying to maintain order and discipline than do the relatively orderly confines of a school.

. This case suggests that sending a minor home while participating on a church-sponsored out-of-town trip may expose a church to liability, no matter how dangerous or unacceptable the minor's behavior may be. Other, less restrictive, options must be considered. These would include (1) sending the child home accompanied by two adults; (2) asking the minor's parents to come and take him or her home; (3) calling the local public school administration to find out what policies they follow in similar cases. Ette v. Lin-Mar Community School District, 2002 WL 31828114 (Iowa 2002).

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