• Key point. Churches are not necessarily responsible for unforeseeable sexual assaults committed by minors on other minors on church premises.
A Tennessee court ruled that a church—operated preschool was not legally responsible for a sexual assault committed by a 4—year—old boy on another 4—year—old boy, since the assault was not foreseeable. A 4—year—old boy (the “victim”) who was enrolled in a church—operated preschool program asked for permission to use the restroom which was located 40 feet down the hall. The teacher informed the victim that he would have to wait until another 4—year—old boy returned from the restroom. When the other boy returned to the classroom the teacher gave the victim permission to go to the restroom. While the victim was in the restroom, the boy who had just returned asked for permission to “get a drink.” The teacher allowed him to do so, but cautioned him not to enter the restroom. The teacher stood in the doorway of the classroom so she could monitor the boy and the classroom at the same time. A few moments later the teacher had to leave the doorway to attend to a crying child. Upon returning to the doorway some 2 or 3 minutes later, she saw the victim and the other boy running together down the hallway toward the classroom. While the teacher was attending the crying child the boy who had gone to get a drink entered the restroom and sexually assaulted the victim. Neither child was being supervised by an adult while absent from the classroom. The victim’s parents sued the church, claiming that it was responsible for their son’s injuries on the basis of negligent supervision. A trial court ruled in favor of the church, and the parents appealed.
The school conceded that it had a duty to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of children under its control. However, it insisted that a sexual assault between two 4—year—old boys was so unforeseeable that there was no duty to guard against it. The school’s director testified that the school had never received a complaint or report about sexual assaults or misconduct among its preschoolers, and that it had never received a complaint concerning the behavior of the boy who committed the molestation. The teacher who was on duty also testified that she knew of no prior sexual assaults involving children at the school, including the boys involved in this incident. The parents presented an expert in early childhood education who testified that (1) proper adult supervision required that the supervising adult be able to see or hear the child at all times; (2) it is not proper adult supervision to allow more than one child to leave a classroom unattended; and (3) a teacher cannot properly supervise a child in a restroom down the hall by occasionally standing in the doorway of a classroom.
A state appeals court ruled that the school was not guilty of negligent supervision because the sexual assault was not reasonably foreseeable. The court noted that there can be liability for negligence unless a victim’s injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the negligent behavior. This test was simply not met. The court observed:
[T]he acts alleged in the complaint are unforeseeable as a matter of law. The alleged acts would be considered vile and reprehensible between two adults, but between two four—year—old boys, the alleged acts are even more shocking and appalling. We do not believe that a reasonable person would ever foresee this type of behavior between boys of that age. The possibility of an accident of this general character could not have been foreseen by [the church or school]. [The school] presented affidavits showing that a sexual assault had never occurred in the school, and that the school had no reason to suspect this behavior from [the assailant]. Moreover, we should consider the fact that the teacher could not reasonably foresee that a child that had just used the restroom facilities would return to the restroom instead of the classroom after getting a drink of water in the school hall.
The parents insisted that “scuffles and pushing and shoving” between two preschool boys is foreseeable, and therefore a sexual assault is reasonably foreseeable. The court disagreed, noting that the injuries that result from a scuffle are different from those that result from a sexual assault. The victim in this case alleged “severe and irreparable emotional and physical damage.” The court noted that “these are the types of injuries that result from a sexual assault, not a scuffle or pushing and shoving.”
Application. The preschool was not liable for one reason-preschool staff were not aware of any prior sexual assaults occurring on its premises. As a result, the assault in this case was not foreseeable and therefore the preschool was not legally responsible for it. But what if school officials were aware of prior sexual assaults on school premises? The court might well have found the school liable since the assault by the 4—year—old would no longer have been unforeseeable. This case demonstrates a principle of fundamental importance to church leaders. When you become aware of sexual misconduct (or any other harmful conduct) on your premises, future harm becomes foreseeable. The legal significance of this is that the church is exposed to liability for future incidents on the basis of negligence because of the foreseeability of harm. Roe v. Catholic Diocese of Memphis, 950 S.W.2d 27 (Tenn. App. 1996). [Negligence as a Basis for Liability]
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