Key point. Juries generally cannot assess monetary damages against two or more organizations for the same wrong. If a jury determines that a personal injury victim has suffered damages of a specified amount, it cannot assess this amount separately against more than one defendant since doing so would result in duplicate verdicts.
A federal appeals court ruled that juries, in assessing monetary damages in sexual misconduct claims, must “segregate” the church’s damages based on negligence from the perpetrator’s damages based on intentional or criminal acts. A church member sued his church and a staff member who sexually molested him. During the trial, the court instructed the jury to segregate damages caused by the perpetrator’s intentional acts from damages caused by the church’s negligence. The jury returned a verdict finding the church liable for only a small portion of the amount that was assessed against the perpetrator. The victim appealed, asking the appeals court to reverse the trial court’s order segregating damages, thereby allowing the church to be assessed the full amount of the damages. A federal appeals court, applying Washington law, affirmed the trial court’s order.
The court noted that the Washington Supreme Court had previously ruled that under Washington law damages resulting from intentional acts must be segregated from those resulting from negligence, and negligent defendants can be held jointly and severally liable only for the damages resulting from their negligence. Tegman v. Accident & Medical Investigations, Inc., 75 P.3d 497 (2003), citing Washington Revised Code 4.22.070. The Washington Supreme Court stressed that a negligent party “could not be held liable for any damages due to intentional acts.”
Application. Most if not all acts of sexual misconduct involve intentional acts by the perpetrator. When the perpetrator is a church employee or volunteer, the church may be liable on the basis of negligence in selecting, supervising, or retaining the wrongdoer. In many cases, juries assign greater culpability, and monetary damages, to the wrongdoer, and lesser culpability and damages to the negligent church. As this case demonstrates, some states require the segregation of damages, meaning that negligent parties cannot be assessed monetary damages based on the wrongdoer’s intentional acts. This is a significant principle, since in most cases those who commit acts of sexual misconduct lack the means to pay their share of a jury verdict. In many states, churches that are found to have been negligent in selecting, supervising, or retaining the wrongdoer can be forced to pay the full amount of damages assessed by the jury, even that portion that was allocated to the wrongdoer’s intentional acts. Church leaders should be familiar with the principle of segregation. If it applies, it may significantly reduce a church’s exposure to monetary damages in sexual misconduct cases involving intentional acts. Fleming v. Church of Latter Day Saints, 275 Fed.Appx. 626 (9th Cir. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2009.