Personal Injuries – Part 1

On Church Property or During Church Activities

Church Law and Tax 1990-05-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Is a church responsible for the homosexual rape of a 6-year-old boy occurring on church property during Sunday School? That was the issue before an Ohio state appeals court in a significant ruling. The boy attended a Sunday School class of about 45 first and second graders at a Nazarene church. One adult female teacher was present on the day of the rape along with two teenage volunteers (one male and one female). During “story time,” the victim became disruptive, and the teacher allowed the male volunteer to “take him back and color” in an unused room. The adult teacher did not check on the boy for the remainder of the Sunday School session. The boy’s mother alleged that the male volunteer took her son to an unused room, slapped him into submission, raped him, and threatened to hurt or kill him if he “told anyone.” The boy and his mother later sued the church, the pastor, the Sunday School teacher, and the alleged rapist and his parents. The lawsuit sought money damages for personal injuries, emotional distress to the mother, loss of services, and medical and psychological expenses. With regard to the church, the lawsuit alleged that the boy’s injuries were a result of the church’s “negligent supervision” of its agents, and that the church had “willfully, wantonly and recklessly placed [the alleged rapist] in a position of control and supervision of the child, causing the aforesaid injuries.” The pastor and Sunday School teacher were sued personally for negligent supervision and negligently allowing the alleged rapist to have custody of the boy. A trial court awarded a “summary judgment” in favor of the church, and its pastor and Sunday School teacher. The victim and his mother appealed this judgment, and a state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The appeals court noted that the church and its pastor and teacher were being sued for negligence, and it observed that “legal liability for negligence is based upon conduct involving unreasonable risk to another, which must be established by affirmative evidence tending to show that such conduct falls below the standard represented by the conduct of reasonable men under the same or similar circumstances. The established test of negligence is the conduct of a reasonably prudent man in like circumstances. [N]egligence does not consist of failing to take extraordinary measures which hindsight demonstrates would have been helpful.” The court further observed that a church is “not an insurer of the safety” of persons on its premises, but rather has only a “duty of ordinary care to avoid injury consistent with [existing] facts and circumstances.” Did the church and its pastor and teacher violate this duty of ordinary care toward the victim and his mother? No, the court concluded. It emphasized that the victim and his mother “have presented no evidence that [the church or its pastor or teacher] knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known of or anticipated a criminal sexual assault by [the alleged rapist] upon another.” The victim and his mother placed great significance upon evidence that “a similar incident had occurred several years earlier.” In rejecting the relevance of this evidence the court observed simply that “there is no evidence that the church or its agents knew, or in the exercise of diligence, should have known of such prior activity.” Finally, the court noted that the victim and his mother cited no legal authority in support of their position. As a result, the appeals court upheld the summary judgment in favor of the church and its pastor and teacher. This ruling is significant for a number of reasons. First, it illustrates that churches are not “guarantors” or insurers of the safety of children (or adults) on their premises. They are legally responsible only for those injuries caused by a breach of their duty or ordinary care. Second, the appeals court’s ruling affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the church and its pastor and teacher. The significance of a summary judgment cannot be overstated, since it represents a decision that the prevailing party is entitled to win as a matter of law without the necessity of a jury trial. The court in essence says that reasonable minds could not disagree as to the outcome of the case, and therefore it should be disposed of summarily. Such a ruling is an especially strong statement of the merits of the prevailing parties’ position. Clearly, it is a much stronger vindication of the position of the church and its pastor and teacher than a jury verdict in their favor. Third, the court hinted that its decision might have been different had the church (or its pastor or teacher) been aware of prior incidents of molestation by the alleged rapist. The court’s ruling was based squarely on the assumption that no such knowledge existed. Fourth, it is interesting that the church was not found negligent in having only one adult supervisor for a class of 45 first and second graders. Other churches should not take comfort in this aspect of the court’s ruling, for it is entirely possible that courts in other states would find such a low teacher-pupil ratio to be evidence of negligence. Finally, note that the court did not rule in favor of the alleged rapist or his parents. The liability of these persons will be decided by a jury. It will be interesting to see if the jury finds the alleged rapist’s parents responsible for the boy’s injuries. Any further developments in this case will be reported in future editions of Church Law & Tax Report. Bender v. First Church of the Nazarene (Ohio App. unpublished opinion 1989).

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