• Key point: An organization that transports children may be responsible for a sexual assault by one minor against another, if the organization was aware of prior behavior by some minors suggesting a propensity for such an assault.
• In a case that will be relevant to any church that transports children by bus or other motor vehicle, an Illinois court ruled that a bus company that transported children to public schools could be sued for the rape of a minor by another minor after the two exited a school bus. The victim was raped by another student after the two exited a school bus and entered school property. The victim argued that the bus company had been negligent in failing to escort her into the building or to observe the students until they were safely in the building. The victim also maintained that the bus company was aware of the dangerous propensities of some of the students that it transported, and that this knowledge made the rape foreseeable. The bus company argued that it could not be responsible for the victim’s injuries since it never agreed to escort students into school buildings; the victim was raped on school property over which the bus company had no control; and, the rape was not foreseeable. A trial court agreed with the bus company and dismissed the lawsuit. The victim appealed, and a state appeals court ruled that the victim could sue the bus company. The court noted that under Illinois law an organization generally does not have a duty to protect another from a criminal attack by a third person. The court noted a few exceptions to this rule. For example, a “common carrier” (such as a bus company) may be responsible for criminal attacks upon passengers. This exception to the general rule did not apply in this case, the court concluded, since the relationship of common carrier and passenger ended when the victim exited the bus safely. However, the court concluded that another exception did apply—an organization may be liable for foreseeable criminal attacks occurring in connection with an activity that it has agreed to perform. The court concluded that the bus company could be sued on this basis, since there was ample evidence that it should have known of the dangerous propensities of some of the students who rode its buses. The court acknowledged that the company had no prior knowledge of any dangerous propensities on the part of the rapist, but it concluded that such knowledge was not necessary to find the company responsible for the victim’s injuries. The court observed: “[I]t is not necessary that the defendant must have foreseen the precise harm that did in fact occur; it is sufficient if at the time of the defendant’s action or inaction, a reasonably prudent person should have foreseen some harm to another as likely to occur. As such, it was not necessary that [the bus company] knew the actual assailant had any criminal propensities, it is sufficient if, as the [victim] alleged, [the company] was aware that some of the special education students riding its bus with [the victim] had propensities toward violent and criminal behavior.”
This case is relevant to any church that uses buses or other vehicles to transport children. It illustrates that such churches have a duty to protect children from assaults while on a church-operated vehicle. Further, the case suggests that a church may be responsible for a criminal assault by one minor against another after they exit a vehicle if (1) the church is aware of dangerous propensities of any one or more minors on the bus (not necessarily the minor who commits the assault), and (2) the church has assumed the responsibility of ensuring that minors not only safely exit the vehicle, but safely enter the home, church or other building where they exit. Hernandez v. Rapid Bus Company, 641 N.E.2d 886 (Ill. App. 1 Dist. 1994).
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