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

The Oklahoma Supreme Court addressed the important question of whether a church can be liable for the death of a passenger in a church vehicle.

Church Law and Tax 2000-09-01

Personal Injuries-on Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point. The failure of a church to require passengers in a church vehicle to wear seat belts will not necessarily make the church legally responsible for deaths or injuries resulting from the failure of passengers to wear seat belts.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court addressed the important question of whether a church can be liable for the death of a passenger in a church vehicle who was not wearing a seat belt. A church borrowed a van from one of its members to transport six children to a summer youth camp. The van was driven by a volunteer driver. In the front seat of the van were the driver and an adult passenger. There were three girls in the middle seat of the van, and three girls in the back seat. There were seat belts for only five of the six girls in the back of the van, one of which was stuffed down in the seat and out of view. The driver and front seat passenger both wore their seat belts, but none of the six girls in the back of van did. One of the girls was killed when the van was struck by another vehicle en route to camp. The victim was seated directly behind the driver. While a seat belt was available for her use, she was not wearing it.

The victim’s parents sued the church, alleging that it was negligent because the van did not have enough seat belts for the number of back-seat passengers it carried, and that the passengers were not required to wear the seat belts which were provided. The church argued that the state mandatory seat belt law only required front-seat passengers to wear a seat belt, and also specified that “nothing in this act shall be used in any civil proceeding in this state and the use or nonuse of seat belts shall not be submitted into evidence in any civil suit in Oklahoma.” A trial court dismissed the case against the church on the basis of the seat belt law. The parents appealed.

The parents conceded that the seat belt law requires only that the occupants of the front seat wear seat belts. However, they insisted that when the church assumes a “supervisory role” over children in a church vehicle, it has a duty to provide a safe environment in which to travel, and that this duty requires the church, at a minimum (1) not to overload the van in such a way as to prevent every child from having access to a useable seat belt, and (2) to instruct or require minor passengers to use seat belts. The parents acknowledged that no court in Oklahoma had ever ruled that a church has a duty to require minors to wear seat belts while traveling in a church vehicle, but it asked the court to recognize such a duty in this case. The court refused to do so. It concluded,

Clearly [the seat belt law] directs that evidence of the nonuse of a seat belt shall not be presented in any civil action. The statute removes from consideration the use or nonuse of seat belts. We do not dispute the efficiency of seat belts in preventing injuries, or that seat belts, properly installed and properly worn, offer protection to the vehicle’s occupants to prevent or limit injuries. Nevertheless, no court has the power to act as a super-legislature by re-writing legislative enactments to conform with its views of public policy. The imposition of the duty as urged by the parents is an act more appropriately performed by the legislature.

Application. Consider the following points:

1. Churches should ensure that any vehicle used to transport church members has a seat belt for each passenger. In addition, a church should (1) instruct all passengers on the availability and use of the seat belts, (2) urge all passengers to use their seat belt, and (3) require minors to use their seat belts. While a failure to take any of these steps, at least with regard to back-seat drivers, does not expose a church to liability in Oklahoma or in any other state that follows the reasoning of this case, it does expose passengers to needless risk of death and injury.

2. The court noted that some courts in other states have ruled that any organization transporting minors has a legal duty to ensure that they are wearing seat belts, and that an organization may be sued on the basis of negligence for deaths of injuries resulting from a minor’s failure to wear a seat belt. The court cited the following states that have recognized such a rule: California, Kansas, Montana, New York (one case), and Wyoming. On the other hand, the court noted that other states have refused to find organizations liable because the occupants of a vehicle were not wearing seat belts, citing as examples Minnesota, New York (4 cases), North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin.

3. The court cited Oklahoma statistics establishing the dramatic reduction in deaths and injuries associated with the use of seat belts: “In 1997, 87.2% of fatality victims should have been using seat belts or child restraints; 73.6% of fatality victims were not using seat belts or child restraints; only 22.2% of fatality victims were using seat belts or child restraints; 4.2% were cases in which seat belt usage was unknown; and 12.8% of fatality accidents were cases in which seat belt usage was not applicable. Comer v. First Baptist Church, 1999 WL 974177 (Okla. 1999).

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