• Key point. Churches are liable for the negligence of their employees committed within the scope of their employment. Not every action by an employee is within the scope of his or her employment.
A Minnesota court ruled that a pastor who accidentally killed a church trustee while deer hunting was not acting within the scope of his employment and therefore the church could not be liable for his negligence. On a Saturday morning in 1993 the pastor of a church went hunting with two parishioners. One of the parishioners was a church trustee, and the other was a member of the church’s strategic planning committee. While the three men were tracking a deer, the pastor’s gun accidentally discharged, killing the trustee. The trustee’s widow brought a wrongful death action against her pastor and church. The sole issue at trial was whether the pastor was acting within the scope of his employment with the church when his gun accidentally discharged and killed the trustee. If he was, then the church was liable for his negligence on the basis of the “respondeat superior” doctrine. Under this doctrine employers generally are liable for the negligence of their employees committed within the scope of their employment. The widow insisted that this test was met. She noted that it was very important for a pastor to cultivate relationships with members, and therefore the hunting trip was within the scope of his employment. While the pastor may not have been “on duty,” he was “on call.” The church disagreed. It pointed out that the hunting trip was on the pastor’s “day off,” and that nothing “spiritual” was discussed during the trip. The trial court found that the pastor was acting within the scope of his employment while hunting. A state appeals court disagreed. It began its opinion by observing that “to support a finding that an employee’s negligent acts occurred within his scope of employment, it must be shown that the conduct was, to some degree, in furtherance of the interests of his employer.” This test was not met:
The evidence established that [the pastor] had changed his day off, had taken a vacation day, and had cancelled a religious education class scheduled for that day. He testified that he took the day off “for his own sake” to go hunting, and that he would have gone hunting even by himself if [the other two] could not have gone. He went hunting with them because of their close relationship, not because they were church members. He testified that he did not go hunting to benefit the church. The only benefit to the church is an indirect and nonspecific benefit from participating in social and recreational events with parishioners. We recognize that the ministers who testified for [the widow] stated that social and recreational interaction was important to pastoral—parishioner relationships and in some instances this benefit is the planned purpose for the interaction. The undisputed facts in this case, however, demonstrate that the deer hunting did not have the planned purpose of furthering pastoral—parishioner relationships. At best the testimony establishes the residual benefit to the church of fostering an ongoing relationship between [the pastor and his two companions] that could benefit the church and help [the pastor] to be a better minister. On these facts, where the act of hunting occurred off church property on [the pastor’s] day off, was not sponsored by the church, and was outside the church’s physical and spiritual influence, the residual benefit of fostering ongoing pastoral—parishioner relationships is too tenuous in its connection to [the pastor’s] employment to support a determination that he was acting within its scope.
The court concluded its opinion by noting that an employer’s liability for the acts of its employees “is not carried to the point where an employer is absolutely liable for every tortious act of his employees.” Rather, “when the connection between the activity and the employer’s interest is as marginal as established on these facts, the rationale for the doctrine does not support the extension of the employer’s liability; the doctrine of vicarious liability does not transform an employer into a comprehensive insurer.” Hentges v. Thomford, 569 N.W.2d 424 (Minn. App. 1997).
[Negligence as a Basis for Liability]
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