• Key point.Churches may be legally responsible for injuries occurring during activities conducted by scouting and other outside youth-serving organizations that are sponsored by the church.
A New York court ruled that a church might be legally responsible for injuries occurring during the activities of a Boy Scout troop sponsored by the church. An 11-year-old boy was a member of a Boy Scout troop sponsored by a local church. He was injured while sledding on a Boy Scout camping trip to a camp that was owned by a regional Boy Scouts organization. The victim’s parents sued the scoutmaster in charge of the trip, the national and regional Boy Scouts organizations, and the sponsoring church. The parents claimed that the negligence of the scoutmaster in permitting the troop to go sledding in a prohibited area resulted in their son’s injuries, and that the Boy Scouts organizations and the church were liable for the negligent acts of the scoutmaster based on the doctrine of respondeat superior. Under the respondeat superior doctrine, an organization is legally responsible for the negligent acts of its agents and employees committed within the course of their assigned duties and responsibilities. The court dismissed the national and regional Boy Scouts organizations from the lawsuit, noting that there was no evidence that they had “supervision or control over the activities of the scoutmaster or the troop.” However, the court refused to dismiss the church from the lawsuit, since the church “failed to establish as a matter of law that it did not have the ability to control the scoutmaster at the time of the accident.”
Application. This case illustrates the risk churches face in sponsoring scouts or other youth-serving organizations. If a child is injured while participating in an activity conducted by the organization, the church may be liable if it had the ability to control the leaders of the event or activity. The concept of “control” is very broad, and so this is a risk that church leaders should take seriously. This risk can be reduced through a number of precautions, including but not limited to the following: (1) do not sponsor a youth-serving organization without written assurance that they use reasonable care in the selection of adult workers; (2) do not sponsor a youth-serving organization without written assurance that they use an adequate number of adult volunteers (you can obtain suggested staffing levels by calling other local charities); (3) do not sponsor a youth-serving organization without written assurance that they employ a “two adult” rule, meaning that no adult is ever permitted to be alone with one child; (4) do not sponsor a youth-serving organization without proof of adequate liability insurance (you can discuss the adequacy of insurance with your own insurance agent); (5) be sure your insurance policy provides coverage in the event of an injury; (6) enter into an agreement with the organization setting forth the nature of the relationship and specifically disclaiming, if appropriate, any authority to control workers, children, or activities. Alessi v. Boy Scouts of America, 668 N.Y.S.2d 838 (A.D. 1998). [Negligence as a Basis for Liability]
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