Personal Injuries – Part 2

On Church Property or During Church Activities

Church Law and Tax 1989-11-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Are adult church members who attend a youth group camping trip as “chaperons” personally liable for the drowning death of one of the children? That was the issue before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. A Baptist church in Oklahoma sponsored an overnight outing for children in grades seven through twelve at a nearby park. The church’s youth minister, who was in charge of the event, secured 24 adult volunteers to act as chaperons during the trip. The children were allowed to swim in an area adjacent to the campsite that was not approved by park personnel. A 13-year-old boy who was not a member of the church attended the trip as a guest of a member. He was discovered missing during a lunch period, and a search for him began. A few hours later, his body was found during dragging operations in the swimming area. The boy’s parents filed a lawsuit against the church, the youth minister, and the 24 chaperons, claiming that the church and youth minister had been negligent in their selection of the site and that the chaperons had been negligent in failing to properly supervise the children. Just prior to trial, the parents reached an out-of-court settlement with the church and its youth minister, and they dismissed 14 of the chaperons from the lawsuit. The parents continued the lawsuit against the remaining 10 chaperons, and sued them in their individual capacities rather than as agents or representatives of the church. A state trial court ruled in favor of the chaperons, but an appeals court ruled in favor of the parents. The 10 chaperons asked the state supreme court to dismiss them from the lawsuit on the ground that they could not be personally liable for the boy’s death since they were acting as agents of the church at the time of the accident. The court conceded that “it is a well established principle that in order to recover damages for wrongful death alleged to have been caused by negligence, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant failed to exercise proper care in the performance of some legal duty owed to the decedent and that the negligent breach of this duty was the proximate cause of death.” The court concluded that each of the 10 chaperons had “assumed chaperon responsibilities as an agent of the church, not in their [sic] individual capacity. If defendants owed a duty to [the drowning victim] it was as agents of the church, not as individuals.” Accordingly, the court dismissed the lawsuit against the 10 chaperons since “all evidence indicates that [they] were acting as agents of the church” and that none of the evidence “indicates that [they] were operating outside their agency relationship with the church or that [they] assumed a duty to [the victim] as individuals.” Since the 10 chaperons had no duty to exercise care with respect to the victim other than as agents of the church, they could not be personally responsible (as individuals rather than as agents of the church) for the victim’s death. Therefore, the lawsuit, which sought to hold the chaperons personally liable, had to be dismissed. Walker v. Mathews, 775 P.2d 273 (Okla. 1989).

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