Personal Injuries on Church Property or During Church Activities – Part 1

A Louisiana court ruled that a school was legally responsible for the rape of a 12-year-old girl who had been allowed to leave school premises during school hours.

Church Law and Tax2002-03-01

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 Louisiana court ruled that a school was legally responsible for the rape of a 12-year-old girl who had been allowed to leave school premises during school hours to return home to change clothing. A 12-year-old 7th grade student ("K.C.") was informed by school officials upon arriving at school one day that her skirt was too short and violated the school dress code. K.C. called home, but no one was available to bring her acceptable clothing. She told the office secretary that in order to obtain acceptable clothing she would have to walk home and change. The secretary instructed her to "sign out," go home, and change. As she walked along the street toward her home, she encountered a man who sexually molested her. The incident occurred approximately eight blocks from the school campus. K.C.’s mother sued the school for damages, claiming that the school had been negligent in allowing a 12-year-old girl to walk home alone during school hours. A jury agreed with the mother, and awarded monetary damages. The school appealed. It insisted that it had no duty to protect students while off of school property, and therefore it was not responsible for K.C.’s injuries. The school relied on an earlier case in which a court had ruled that a school’s supervisory duty did not extend to a 9-year-old student who was struck by an automobile when walking home from school after attending an after-school extracurricular activity. In reaching that conclusion, the court stated that "schools are not the insurers of the lives or safety of children," and that the standard of care to be applied depends on the age of the children at issue and the surrounding circumstances. The Louisiana court concluded that this case was not relevant, and it affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of K.C. It acknowledged that a school generally has no responsibility for after school off-campus injuries, but "the duty of reasonable supervision is generally always present when a child is on campus during regular school hours." And, "included within that duty of reasonable supervision includes the duty to make the appropriate supervisory decisions concerning a student’s departure from campus during regular school hours." The court concluded,

It is clear that the injury to K.C. occurred during school hours and, therefore, at a time when K.C.’s actual custody was entrusted to the school. K.C. was required to walk through an area … known for illicit drug and other activity. Specifically, this was an area acknowledged by [school officials] as one they would not want their own daughter traversing alone. As recognized by the trial court, no one testified that "they would have allowed their twelve year old daughter to walk the streets or any street in this [area] by herself …. [W]e find that a causal connection exists between her lack of supervision and the incident giving rise to her injury. We further find that the incident would not have occurred but for the absence of the appropriate degree of care and supervision required under the facts ….

Application. This case is directly relevant to churches. It illustrates that any church that knowingly allows a young child to leave church property during a scheduled church activity is potentially liable for any injury that may occur to that child off of church premises. Here is a good rule to follow—assume that your church is a "custodian" of children in its care until it delivers custody back to a parent, legal guardian, or designated custodian. When a church allows a child to leave church premises before custody is transferred back to the appropriate person, it retains responsibility for injuries that may occur. D.C. v. St. Landry Parish School Board, 802 So.2d 19 (La. App. 2001).

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