• Key point 10-09.2. Some courts have found churches not liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a worker’s acts of child molestation on the ground that the church exercised reasonable care in the supervision of the victim and of its own programs and activities.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability
* A New York court ruled that a school could not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision for a teacher’s alleged molestation of a 6-year-old boy because it had no prior knowledge of a propensity to engage in such acts. A 6-year-old boy claimed that he was sexually molested on numerous occasions by a teacher at his school. The alleged perpetrator was an “English as a second language” teacher to whom the boy was sometimes assigned for personal instruction. Medical examinations provided no conclusive evidence of sexual abuse. Police investigated, but no criminal charges were filed. School authorities also investigated the situation, culminating in a decision not to prefer disciplinary charges. The boy’s parents sued the school, claiming that their boy was repeatedly molested by the teacher, and that the school was responsible for these acts on the basis of negligent supervision. After extensive pre-trial discovery, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit. The parents appealed. A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The court acknowledged that “a school has a duty to adequately supervise students in its care, and may be held liable for injuries that are foreseeable and proximately related to the school’s failure to provide adequate supervision.” The standard to determine whether a school has breached this duty is “to compare the school’s supervision and protection to that of a parent of ordinary prudence placed in the identical situation and armed with the same information.” The court concluded,
When liability is imposed on a school for negligent supervision due to injuries related to an individual’s intentional acts, the plaintiff generally must demonstrate the school’s prior knowledge or notice of the individual’s propensity or likelihood to engage in such conduct, so that the individual’s acts could be anticipated or were foreseeable. Here, plaintiff presented no evidence that the school had any knowledge or notice that the teacher may molest a student. The school obtained information from the state department of education, checked references from prior employers, and this individual had been employed by the school for over 15 years without incident. The classroom teacher acted reasonably in releasing the boy to another teacher. Allowing a teacher to work alone one-on-one with a student did not breach the school’s duty to supervise students.
Application. This case is significant for the following reasons.
1. The court ruled that an organization cannot be liable on the basis of negligent supervision based on someone’s “intentional acts” unless it had “prior knowledge or notice of the individual’s propensity or likelihood to engage in such conduct, so that the individual’s acts could be anticipated or were foreseeable.”
2. The school in this case could not be liable based on negligent supervision for the teacher’s alleged acts of child molestation because it had “prior knowledge” of the teacher’s propensity to commit such acts. In reaching this conclusion, the court pointed to the following facts: (1) the school obtained information from the state department of education concerning the teacher; (2) the school checked references from prior employers when the teacher was hired; and (3) the teacher had been employed by the school for over 15 years without incident.
3. The court ruled that the boy’s classroom teacher acted reasonably in releasing him to another teacher, and that “allowing a teacher to work alone one-on-one with a student did not breach the school’s duty to supervise students.” This is an important conclusion. While we believe that no child should ever be in the sole custody of an unrelated adult on church property or during any church activity, this case suggests that such arrangements do not necessarily constitute evidence of negligent supervision so long as there is no reason to suspect that the adult has a propensity for molesting children. DIa CC v. Ithaca City School District, 758 N.Y.S.2d 197 (2003).
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