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

A Virginia court ruled that a school could be liable for the transmission of the HIV virus to a teacher by an 8-year-old student.

Key point. A church may be legally responsible for the transmission of AIDS or the HIV virus to a youth worker by an infected minor if the worker was not informed that the minor was infected, or if the minor had a history of violent behavior and the worker was not provided training in handling such a child.

A Virginia court ruled that a school could be liable for the transmission of the HIV virus to a teacher by an 8-year-old student during an altercation that resulted in a commingling of bodily fluids. In a growing number of churches, pastors and lay leaders are discovering that one or more persons in their congregation is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Such knowledge raises a number of important legal issues, including the church's liability in the event that the infected person transmits the disease to another member of the congregation on church premises or in the course of a church activity. Up until now, no court has addressed this issue in the context of a church. However, a Virginia court addressed the related question of whether a public school could be liable if an HIV-infected child infects a teacher by biting her. The court's ruling is of direct relevance to church leaders.

An adult teacher ("Vicky") was employed as a substitute public school teacher. She was conducting a class that included an 8-year-old child ("Mark") who was HIV-infected. She had not been informed of Mark's disease. School authorities had employed another teacher's assistant to help Vicky "manage" Mark. Mark was known by school authorities to be violent. Vicky had not been instructed or trained by school authorities on how to cope with this child.

One day Mark attacked the other teacher's assistant, and Vicky rushed to her aid. During the ensuing scuffle Mark and Vicky both suffered wounds, and their blood was commingled. Mark also bit Vicky. Only later was Vicky informed that Mark was HIV infected. Upon learning of Mark's condition, Vicky became extremely distraught, and she lives in fear that she is infected (medical tests have not yet confirmed that she is infected).

Vicky sued the school, claiming that it was negligent in not informing her that Mark was HIV infected or that he was violent, and in failing to train her in how to handle violent children with communicable diseases. She pointed out that a Virginia law requires that all schools insure that school personnel having direct contact with students receive training in the cause, prevention, transmission, and effects of HIV. Vicky claimed that this provision imposed a duty on schools to inform teachers of any student who is HIV infected, and to train them in managing such students.

The school insisted that it could not be liable for Vicky's injuries, since it was forbidden by law from disclosing to her that Mark was HIV-infected. In support of this position, the school pointed to a state law requiring physicians and laboratory directors to report certain communicable diseases (including HIV) to a health department and mandating that such information be kept confidential. This proved, according to the school, that HIV infection is a highly confidential condition and can only be disclosed if permitted by law.

The court began its opinion by rejecting the school's reliance on the medical reporting statute. It observed, "The statute governs test results and the release of test results. Persons involved with such testing and the preparation of reports are constrained by the statute, but [the school has] not informed the court of any statute either constraining public school authorities or allowing them to release what they may know."

The court then quoted the Virginia law that requires schools to train personnel having direct contact with students about the cause, prevention, transmission, and effects of HIV. It conceded that the statute did not directly require school officials to inform teachers that one or more of their students was HIV-infected, or to train teachers in handling such students, but it concluded that these duties could be inferred. It observed, "The legislature dances around the obvious duty in its cautious language because of the stigma attached to the disease, but reading the statute as a whole, its … attempts at codifying assistance to vulnerable teachers, reveal a duty to inform and instruct not only as to the disease but as to which students are infected. Just imagine the burdensome problems that would arise if every time a teacher is exposed to the blood, or any body fluids, of any student in the whole school [he or she] requests a health department investigation. Is that what the legislature intended? It would not be thought so."

Application. There are several aspects of the court's decision that should be noted:

1. This represents one of the few cases to address institutional liability for the transmission of HIV, and so it may be given more weight by other courts.

2. The case demonstrates that while the transmission of HIV during school or church activities involving minors is highly unlikely, it is not impossible. Further, while many church leaders assume that the main risk of HIV transmission is through commingling of bodily fluids by young children, the risk to adults associated with violent behavior by HIV-infected children must also be considered.

3. The court concluded that the school could be liable for Vicky's infection since it failed to disclose Mark's condition to her. However, the court stressed that there was no general duty to disclose this information to teachers, but rather such a duty could be inferred from a state law requiring schools to train teachers in the causes, prevention, transmission, and effects of HIV. This aspect of the court's decision suggests that HIV status should be disclosed to persons who work with HIV-infected children only if such a duty is specifically imposed by statute or can reasonably be inferred from a statute. Church leaders who are aware that a child is HIV-infected should not disclose this information to teachers or other persons who work with the child without first consulting with legal counsel to determine whether a duty of disclosure exists under state law. In many cases, it is possible to obtain consent from the child's parents to disclose his or her condition to specified persons in the church with a legitimate need to know. This can reduce any legal risk associated with disclosing the information. Also, if a church adopts appropriate measures to prevent the transmission of communicable diseases (see the next paragraph), it is reducing the risk of liability associated with the transmission of the disease to persons who were not apprised of the risk.

4. The court concluded that the school could be liable for Vicky's infection since it failed to train her in handling or managing HIV-infected students in general, and violent ones in particular. Church leaders should provide teachers with training in handling children with communicable diseases whether or not they are aware that a HIV-infected child attends the church. There are many other communicable diseases that are far more likely than HIV to be transmitted during children's activities. Such training would apply to all communicable diseases, including HIV. A local public health department employee, or a physician or nurse, can be of immeasurable assistance in this regard. Colona v. Accomack County School Board, 2000 WL 1528703 (Va. App. 2001).

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