Recent Developments in Louisiana Regarding Personal Injuries on Church Property or During Church Activities

A Louisiana court ruled that a charity that sponsored an overnight youth activity was liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the death of a 12-year-old girl who drowned in a hotel swimming pool.

Church Law and Tax1999-07-01

Personal Injuries-on Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point. Churches may be liable for injuries sustained by minors during church activities as a result of negligent supervision.

A Louisiana court ruled that a charity that sponsored an overnight youth activity was liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the death of a 12-year-old girl who drowned in a hotel swimming pool. While the charity was not a church or other religious organization, the court’s conclusions are of direct relevance to churches. The victim was participating in a basketball tournament in another city. It was her first overnight trip. The team was accompanied by four coaches and several parents. The victim’s mother, who had raised her, was unable to go along. The victim had very little contact with her biological father, and he was unaware of the trip. The team had gone on several overnight trips in the past, and swimming was a common occurrence on those trips. On this trip, the team stayed at a Holiday Inn hotel that had a large atrium and pool. When the team checked into the hotel, the head coach was not informed of any rules or regulations regarding children in the swimming pool.

One evening, following a tournament game, the team had dinner and then returned to the hotel at about 9 PM. Since the pool did not close until 10 PM, several of the children went to the pool. The pool was very crowded with about 50 adults and children, many of whom were associated with teams in the same tournament. The “deck area” surrounding the pool was also very crowded, with between 100 and 200 persons sitting in deck chairs, including the team’s coaches and parents. The senior coach did not provide the team with any instructions before they went into the pool. He did not ask the girls individually if they could swim, and he did not tell them to stay in the shallow end of the pool. The coach sat a few feet away from the pool, and was unaware of any problems or difficulties of any of his team members.

Several minutes after the team entered the pool, a young boy from another team stepped on something in the water. Since the water was “cloudy” due to the large number of swimmers, the child could not clearly see what he was stepping on and assumed that it was a pool toy. A few seconds later he stepped on it again, and this time he decided to investigate. To his horror, he found the victim’s body on the pool floor in some six feet of water. The boy swam to the surface and because of the noise from the large number of people he had to scream loudly and repeatedly before being noticed. He dragged the victim’s body to the side of the pool. Despite the administration of CPR by a hotel guest, and the quick response by paramedics, the victim could not be resuscitated. At the time of the accident, the hotel had no lifeguard on duty, despite its knowledge that several teams of minors were staying in the hotel because of the tournament. Further, no one with water safety training was assigned to monitor the pool and swimmers; there were no hotel regulations regarding pool capacity; the pool and surrounding area were very crowded and noisy, making it unlikely that a swimmer in distress would be readily observed; the pool had no safety rope or lifeline in the deep end; depth markers were not clear; and, the water was cloudy.

The victim’s mother sued the hotel and charity. A state appeals court concluded that the charity and hotel were both responsible for the drowning on the basis of negligence, but that the amount of damages had to be reduced by 30% because of the negligence of the victim and her mother. The court’s reasoning is summarized below:

The Charity

The court conceded that organizations that sponsor youth athletic teams are not “insurers” of the safety of the children who participate. However, they are required to exercise reasonable care “commensurate with the foreseeable risk.” The court noted that the victim was one of only two team members who was not accompanied by a parent. The court then observed:

The crowded state of the pool and surrounding area, the cloudy water, the lack of some basic safety precautions such as the safety rope and adequate depth markers, and the absence of a lifeguard, should have put anyone on notice that the condition of the pool was unsafe. Acting in loco parentis [in the place of parents], the coaches had a duty to monitor the children under their supervision with reasonable care under the circumstances, considering the age of the children and their immature judgment, and the conditions of the pool. We conclude that reasonable attention to those children, especially those without other family members to watch over them, would have enabled the coaches to be aware of [the victim’s] activities, her sudden absence from the group for more than seven minutes, and ascertained her whereabouts. Had she been properly monitored, as were the other children, it is reasonable to assume that she would have been noticed while in distress or found much earlier.

The court concluded that the charity had a duty to ascertain “whether or not [the victim] could swim, and obtain parental permission for her to do so.” It pointed out that the victim’s mother signed a permission form, but this form only authorized her daughter to participate in the basketball tournament. The court noted that had the charity ascertained that the victim “could not swim, the accident could have been prevented by not allowing her in the pool.”

The Hotel

The court found the hotel negligent on the basis of the factors noted above. These included the following: (1) no lifeguard on duty, though several teams of minors were staying in the hotel because of a tournament; (2) no one with water safety training was assigned to monitor the pool and swimmers; (3) no hotel regulations addressed pool capacity; (4) the pool and surrounding area were very crowded and noisy, making it unlikely that a swimmer in distress would be readily observed; (5) the pool had no safety rope or lifeline in the deep end; (6) depth markers were not clear; and (7) the water was cloudy. The court concluded that “the whole purpose of maintaining clear water, providing a lifeguard, guarding against overcrowding, providing a safety rope and depth markers, is to insure that there are not accidents in the pool, specifically drownings.” The hotel breached its duty of providing minors with a safe environment in which to swim.

The Victim and Her Mother

The court concluded that the victim and her mother were both 15% at fault, and therefore the damages payable by the charity and hotel had to be reduced by 30%. The court noted that the victim, a 12-year-old girl, “was aware of the risk of getting into the pool without being able to swim, and therefore she acted unreasonably under the circumstances.” In addition, the mother “should have been aware of all the details of the trip on which her daughter was to be sent, including the very strong possibility of the children going swimming, and informed the coaches that [her daughter] could not swim.”

Application. This case is important for a couple of reasons:

Youth trips that involve swimming. If your church sends minors on a trip that will involve swimming (or the possibility of swimming), there are a number of steps that you can take that will reduce the risk of drowning, and the church’s risk of liability. Some were noted in this decision. They include: (1) Encouraging parents to accompany their children. The court in this case concluded that the charity’s duty of care was greater because the victim’s mother was not present. (2) Having both parents sign a permission form indicating whether or not the child can swim. In some cases, it is not feasible or possible to have both parents sign (due to divorce, separation, or death). But church leaders should recognize that the best protection comes from having both parents sign. (3) If the parental permission form indicates that the child is able to swim, then the form should also ask the parents to authorize their child’s participation in the event, including swimming. (4) If the parental permission form indicates that the child cannot swim, then church leaders must recognize that they are assuming a greater risk by allowing the child to participate. This risk can be avoided by not allowing the child to participate. As the court noted in this case, had the charity ascertained that the victim could not swim, “the accident could have been prevented by not allowing her into the pool.” If parents consent to their child’s participation despite his or her inability to swim, then under no circumstances should the child be allowed to attend the event without appropriate restrictions. The nature of these restrictions will depend on a number of factors, including the age of the child, the degree of supervision provided by adults, the availability of trained lifeguards, and the relative risk of the location. For example, lakes generally pose more danger than pools, because the water is not clear, the area is unsupervised, and there are no lifeguards present. Selecting appropriate restrictions is often a very difficult task for the persons in charge of an event. One recommendation that may help is to ask other local charities (Red Cross, YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts) what their policy would be under the same circumstances. Be sure to make a record of the person you spoke with, and the suggestion that this person made. (5) Check with your church insurance agent for additional recommendations. (6) Go to locations that have certified lifeguards on duty.

Churches with pools. If your church has a pool, then be sure to review the unsafe conditions allowed by the hotel in this case that were the basis for legal liability. This will assist you in identifying important risks.Turner v. Parish of Jefferson, 721 So.2d 64 (La. App. 1998). [Negligence as a Basis for Liability]

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