• Key point 10-02.3. Churches can be legally responsible on the basis of the respondeat superior doctrine for the actions of their employees only if those actions are committed within the course of employment and further the mission and functions of the church. Intentional and self-serving acts of church employees often will not satisfy this standard.
• Key point 10-17.1. Punitive damages are monetary damages awarded by a jury “in addition to compensation for a loss sustained, in order to punish, and make an example of, the wrongdoer.” They are awarded when a person’s conduct is reprehensible and outrageous. Most church insurance policies exclude punitive damages. This means that a jury award of punitive damages represents an uninsured risk.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability
* A Connecticut court ruled that a church and diocese were not liable on the basis of respondeat superior or conspiracy for a priest’s sexual molestation of a minor, but they could be liable on the basis of negligence and they could be liable for punitive damages based on “reckless indifference” if they were aware of the priest’s “proclivity” to molest children but did not restrict his access to children. A man (the “plaintiff”) sued a priest, church, and diocese, claiming that the priest sexually molested him repeatedly over a 5-year period when he was a minor several years before. The plaintiff claimed that the church and diocese were responsible for the priest’s acts on the basis of the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, as well as conspiracy and negligence.
Under this doctrine, an employer is responsible for the acts of its employees committed within the course of their employment. The church and diocese claimed that they could not be liable on the basis of respondeat superior for intentional misconduct committed by an employee for personal purposes and outside of the scope of employment. The court agreed. It noted that an employer is liable for the acts of an employee “only when that conduct is actuated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer.” The critical question “is whether the employee was engaged in the employer’s business or had abandoned that business while harming the plaintiff.” The court concluded that because the plaintiff made no claim that the priest’s acts of sexual abuse were done “in any way to advance or further the business of the church or diocese, even in some misguided manner, these counts fail to set forth a cause of action imposing vicarious liability upon these defendants.”
On the other hand, the court concluded that the church and diocese might be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries on the basis of their negligence in selecting or supervising the priest, if negligence could be established.
The plaintiff alleged that the priest, church, and diocese were all jointly liable on the basis of a “conspiracy.” The court disagreed, noting that a conspiracy “requires that two or more persons combine for the purpose of committing a criminal or other unlawful act or use unlawful means which injure another. It is inadequate to aver that a group of persons agreed to perform certain other acts but not the injurious conduct which harmed the plaintiff, in this case the sexual abuse of a minor.”
The plaintiffs asked the court to award punitive damages, and the church and diocese asked the court to rule that such damages were not available. The court noted that “reckless indifference” can justify punitive damages. Further, “Reckless misconduct exceeds mere negligence. A reckless actor is one who recognizes that his or her behavior involves a risk of injury to others substantially greater than negligence. It requires a conscious choice of a course of action with knowledge that that action will seriously endanger others or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger. In the present case, the plaintiff alleges that the diocese and local church knew of [the priest’s] proclivity to abuse children sexually and consistently allowed him to have private access to such children, including the plaintiff. Reckless indifference encompasses such conscious behavior, if proven.”
Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, the court ruled that churches and denominational agencies cannot be liable on the basis of “conspiracy” in cases involving sexual misconduct by ministers or lay employees unless they “combine for the purpose of committing a criminal or other unlawful act or use unlawful means which injure another. It is inadequate to aver that a group of persons agreed to perform certain other acts but not the injurious conduct which harmed the plaintiff, in this case the sexual abuse of a minor.” Many victims of sexual misconduct have sued their church and denominational agencies on the basis of a conspiracy. This case suggests that such allegations will rarely be successful, since it will be difficult if not impossible for victims of sexual misconduct to prove that churches and denominational agencies combined for the purpose of furthering or committing acts of sexual misconduct. The mere fact that they are organizationally related is not sufficient to establish a conspiracy.
Second, this case demonstrates the churches may be subject to punitive damages if a minister, lay employee, or volunteer sexually molests a minor or adult. Punitive damages are monetary damages awarded by a jury “in addition to compensation for a loss sustained, in order to punish, and make an example of, the wrongdoer.” They are awarded when a person’s conduct is reprehensible and outrageous. The courts have ruled that insurance policies cannot insure against punitive damages since this would violate “public policy.” This means that a jury award of punitive damages represents an uninsured and potentially substantial risk. The court in this case concluded that the church and diocese would be liable for punitive damages if the plaintiff could prove that they “knew of [the priest’s] proclivity to abuse children sexually and consistently allowed him to have private access to such children.” What does this mean? Church leaders that refuse to address allegations or incidents of sexual misconduct by employees or volunteers are exposing themselves and their church to punitive damages in the event that such conduct is repeated. It is imperative for church leaders to understand the enormity of this risk. Dumais v. Hartford Roman Catholic Diocese, 2002 WL 31015708 (Conn. Super. 2002).
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