• Key point 8-02. All states have enacted workers compensation laws to provide benefits to employees who are injured or become ill in the course of their employment. Benefits generally are financed through insurance premiums paid by employers. Churches are subject to workers compensation laws in most states.
* The Delaware Superior Court ruled that workers compensation was the sole remedy available to a teenage counselor at a church camp who was sexually molested by an older counselor, and so the teenage counselor could not sue the church camp for damages based on negligent hiring or negligent supervision. A 15-year-old girl (Amy) was employed as a camp counselor by a church camp. Amy agreed to work for two months in exchange for room and board. She also agreed to remain at the camp at all times, except for designated nights off. Amy alleged that she was sexually propositioned by a camp employee, and on the following night was sexually assaulted. She shared these experiences with another camp counselor, who entered into a sexual relationship with Amy over the course of four weeks. All of these encounters occurred in Amy’s cabin. During this time Amy became withdrawn and emotionally upset. She eventually left the camp, and suffered emotional, psychological, and physical injuries as well as a loss of self-esteem. Amy’s mother sued the camp and church, claiming that they recklessly and negligently disregarded Amy’s personal rights and safety. The camp and church argued that Amy was an employee whose sole remedy was workers compensation, and therefore her negligence lawsuit against the camp and church had to be dismissed. Amy’s mother claimed that her daughter was off-duty and not acting in the course of her employment when she was sexually assaulted by the other counselor. Further, Amy’s relationship with the counselor was personal and not job-related, and therefore her injuries were not compensable under workers compensation.
The court noted that the state workers compensation law specifies that “every employer and employee, adult and minor, shall be bound by the [workers’ compensation statute] to pay and to accept compensation for personal injury or death by accident arising out of and in the course of employment, regardless of the question of negligence and to the exclusion of all other rights and remedies.” Based on this language, Amy’s lawsuit had to be dismissed if the camp and church could prove that (1) she was an employee, (2) she suffered a personal injury, and (3) the injury arose in the course of employment. Under these circumstances, workers compensation would be Amy’s sole remedy and her negligence claim would have to be dismissed.
The court concluded that Amy was an employee, and that she suffered a personal injury compensable under the workers compensation statute. The only remaining issue was whether her injury occurred in the course of her employment. The court concluded that this third test was also met:
Even if an injury occurs at the time and place of employment, employment may not be considered the cause of injury. The injury must occur “in the course of employment” and “arise out of the employment” to be compensable under workers compensation. The two phrases are not synonymous. In order for an injury to arise “in the course of employment,” the offending act must arise from “those things that an employee may reasonably do or be expected to do within a time during which he is employed, and at a place where he may reasonably be during that time.” An injury arises “out of” employment if the injury relates to “the nature, conditions, obligations or incidents of the employment, or has a reasonable relation to it ….” Amy resided in a cabin provided by the camp, her employer. The agreement required her to reside at the camp and remain on-call 24-hours a day. Her presence in the cabin was reasonable, as the job required her to be on the premises. Thus, whether she was actively performing work-related tasks at the time of her injury is inconsequential. Furthermore, the relationship that developed between her and [the other counselor] was foreseeable. Amy, a teenager, was free from parental supervision and, as a counselor, given a measure of independence. Illicit behavior between employees is foreseeable in this situation. Thus, the [sexual relationship] arose from and were in the course of Amy’s job as a summer counselor. Although the harm allegedly endured by Amy is unfortunate, this court is not the proper forum to examine the defendants’ liability.
Application. The implications of this case are significant. It suggests that a church employee who is a victim of sexual misconduct in the course of employment cannot sue his or her employing church based on negligence or any other “common law” theory of liability. The employee’s sole remedy is workers compensation. However, note that this defense may be unavailable to a church that fails to secure workers compensation insurance. Murdoch v. Camp Arrowhead Church Camp, 2003 WL 21526993 (Del. Super. 2003).
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