• Is a church legally responsible for the emotional distress suffered by the parents of a three-year-old child who wandered away from a church-operated child care center and who was found and returned unharmed by a neighbor two hours later? No, concluded a state appeals court in Ohio. The parents had dropped their child off at the church in the morning, and were called later that day by a church employee who informed them of the incident. The parents claimed to have suffered “severe emotional distress” as a result of the incident, and they sued the church on account of its “negligent infliction of emotional distress.” A trial court ruled in favor of the church, and the parents appealed. The state appeals court also ruled in favor of the church. It noted that under Ohio law the parents’ claim of “negligent infliction of emotional distress” required a finding that their emotional distress was a “reasonably foreseeable” consequence of the church’s negligence. “Reasonable foreseeability,” observed the court, requires three findings—(1) the parents were near the scene of the accident, not a distance away; (2) the parents “contemporaneously observed” the accident rather than learn about it from others some time later; and (3) the parents and the victim (the child) were related. Since the parents were “not near the scene of the incident” and “did not observe [their son’s] wandering but learned of it hours later after [his] safe return,” their emotional distress was not reasonably foreseeable and accordingly the church was not liable for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Of course, had the child not been found, or had he suffered any type of injury, the church could have been sued for “negligent supervision” of children under its custody and control. There is little doubt that the church would have been legally liable in such a case. Therefore, the Ohio ruling should not be interpreted as creating any form of legal immunity for churches that operate child care centers. The court ruled in favor of the church solely because the child had been returned unharmed, and the parents were unable to prove all of the technical elements necessary to support their claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Edwards v. Mt. Washington Baptist Day Care Center, 541 N.E.2d 465 (Ohio App. 1989).
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