Key Point A church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries resulting from a failure to exercise adequate supervision of its programs and activities.
An Arizona court ruled that a church was not legally responsible for injuries sustained by a minor during a church retreat since the church had adequately warned of the risk of injury. A mother and her 14-year-old daughter (the “victim”) attended a three day “family retreat” hosted by a church at a public campground. On the first day of the retreat, church leaders told the campers that climbing a mountain immediately adjacent to the campground was “prohibited,” that campground personnel had instructed them “not to climb the mountain,” and that campers who chose to do so would proceed “at their own risk.” Additionally, each camper was given a written list of rules for the retreat that provided: “Campers are not allowed to go out of the camp boundaries,” “mountain climbing is not permitted without proper supervision,” and “parents are responsible for their children.” The adjacent mountain was not part of the campground.
The victim’s parents sued the church and campground claiming that they were liable for their daughter’s injuries because they had negligently failed to warn of a dangerous condition and had failed to provide adequate supervision.
On the second day of the retreat, the victim and several other girls went to the mountain and climbed until they reached an area where they could sit and take photographs. The victim’s mother saw her on the mountain and waved to her, but she did not tell her to stop climbing or to come down. As the girls descended the mountain, a rock was dislodged and rolled onto the victim. An adult from another hiking party lifted the rock off of her, and she was taken by helicopter to a hospital.
The victim’s parents sued the church and campground claiming that they were liable for their daughter’s injuries because they had negligently failed to warn of a dangerous condition and had failed to provide adequate supervision. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the victim had “engaged in an activity she had been warned against by defendants.” The parents appealed.
On appeal, the parents argued that the defendants negligently supervised the victim and did not take reasonable steps to prevent her from climbing the mountain. The court disagreed: “Generally, parents are responsible for protecting their children and third parties may become responsible only after they have assumed responsibility for their care.
Here, the defendants had not assumed responsibility for [the victim’s] care. Indeed, the church explicitly stated in its written rules for the retreat that parents would be responsible for their children and ‘constant parent supervision will allow us to have a successful camp for all.’
Moreover, to the extent the [parents] argue the defendants should have physically restrained minor campers or set up a physical barricade to prevent them from climbing the mountain, that would have created an unreasonable burden on the defendants and would have also been unnecessary in light of their several warnings against climbing the mountain …. In sum, the defendants adequately warned the campers through both verbal prohibitions and written admonishments that climbing the mountain was a dangerous activity.” 2008 WL 2756505 (Ariz. App. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, November/December 2008.