Recent Developments in Alabama Regarding Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

An Alabama court ruled that a school was not liable for a teacher’s acts of child molestation since it conducted a thorough background check before hiring him and did not violate its written policies.

Church Law and Tax1999-01-01

Sexual Misconduct By Clergy And Church Workers

Key point. Conducting a background check before hiring a teacher or youth worker can reduce if not eliminate an organization’s liability for negligent hiring.

An Alabama court ruled that a school was not liable for a teacher’s acts of child molestation since it conducted a thorough background check before hiring him and did not violate its written policies. A male student at private high school was molested by a teacher during a school camping trip, and several weeks later when he visited the teacher’s home. The student sued the school, claiming that it was responsible for his injuries on the basis of negligent hiring and negligent supervision. The court disagreed.
It noted that the school had conducted a thorough background check on the teacher before hiring him. Further, school officials were not aware of the molestation until after it occurred.

The court rejected the student’s claim that the school was guilty of negligent supervision because it violated its own “sign out” and parental permission policies. These policies only applied to overnight and weekend absences from school, the court observed, and did not apply in this case since none of the acts of molestation occurred during such absences. The student claimed that another school policy prohibited the teacher from removing only one student at a time from school premises, and that this policy had been violated by the school when the student visited the teacher in his home. The court pointed out that this policy was an “unwritten” policy of a school supervisor, who was unaware that the student ever visited the teacher at his home. The court stressed that “the mere fact that an injury has occurred is not evidence of negligence” and that negligent supervision “will not be found by inference.”

Application. There are two aspects of this case that are worth remembering. First, an organization that conducts an adequate background check on a youth worker generally will not be liable on the basis of negligent hiring for the worker’s acts of child molestation. This case illustrates the importance of screening those persons who will work with (or have access to) minors. Second, the case demonstrates the importance of following policies. The school was not liable for the victim’s molestation because it did not violate its “sign out” and parental permission policies. Had the victim been molested as a result of the school’s violation of one or both of these policies, then it is likely that the school would have been legally responsible for the victim’s injuries. Church leaders should understand that if they adopt policies, then they must ensure that the policies are followed. Failure to do so can lead to significant liability. Anonymous v. Lyman Ward Military Academy, 701 So.2d 25 (Ala. App. 1997). [Negligence as a Basis for Liability]

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