Pastor, Church & Law

Intervening Cause

§ 10.16.03

Key point 10-16.03. A church is not legally responsible for an injury that occurs on its premises or in the course of one of its activities if the injury resulted from the intervention of a new and independent cause that was unforeseeable.

Many courts have ruled that a person’s negligence is not the legal cause of an injury that results from the intervention of a new and independent cause that is (1) neither anticipated nor reasonably foreseeable, (2) not a consequence of his or her negligence, (3) not controlled by him or her, and (4) the actual cause of the injury in the sense that the injury would not have occurred without it. If an intervening cause meets these conditions, it is considered a “superseding” cause that eliminates the original wrongdoer’s liability.

To illustrate, a superseding, intervening cause was found to have insulated the original wrongdoer from liability for his negligence in the following situations: a bus driver ran a stop sign, causing a car approaching from an intersecting street to abruptly stop, resulting in the car being struck by another car that had been following it too closely;192 Seeger v. Weber, 113 N.W.2d 566 (Wis. 1962).a motorist’s negligent driving resulted in a collision with a second vehicle, and a third motorist, whose attention was distracted by the scene of the accident, struck a pedestrian;193 Lewis v. Esselman, 539 S.W.2d 581 (Mo. 1976).and a motorist’s negligent operation of his automobile caused an accident, and a police officer investigating the scene of the accident was injured when struck by another vehicle being operated in a negligent manner.194 Schrimsher v. Bryson, 130 Cal. Rptr. 125 (1976).

Case studies

  • A Georgia court ruled that a public school was not legally responsible for the murder of a child who was released by school officials prior to the end of the school day.195 Perkins v. Morgan County School District, 476 S.E.2d 592 (Ga. App. 1996). While the case involved a school, it is directly relevant to churches as well. The school had a written policy addressing early dismissals of students. The policy specified that no student could be released prior to the end of the school day without the consent of a parent. On the day of the murder, the school received two calls from a person with a male voice requesting that the victim be released early. The caller was informed that this was not possible without the consent of a parent. A short time later the school received a call from a person identifying herself as the victim’s mother. This person requested that the victim be released early due to a “family emergency.” A school secretary authorized the early release of the victim based on this call, and on her way home the victim was abducted and murdered. The victim’s parents sued the school, claiming that it was responsible for their daughter’s death as a result of its negligent supervision. A state appeals court ruled that the school was not liable for the girl’s death. The court conceded that the school may have been negligent, but it concluded that this negligence was not the cause of the girl’s death. Rather, the death was caused by an unforeseeable “intervening cause” —the criminal activity of an outsider —which relieved the school from liability. The court observed, “Generally, an intervening criminal act of a third party, without which the injury would not have occurred, will also be treated as the [cause] of the injury thus breaking the causal connection between the defendant’s negligence and the injury unless the criminal act was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s conduct.” The court noted that (1) school officials had no reason to suspect that the murderer posed a risk of harm to the victim; (2) school officials were aware of no threats ever directed to the victim by the murderer or anyone else; (3) no student had ever before been abducted or assaulted after being released before the end of the school day; and (4) the victim expressed no concern for her safety. Based on this evidence, the court concluded that “it was not foreseeable that [the victim] would be murdered after being released from school early.” The court concluded that even if the school had been negligent in properly supervising the victim, its negligence “did nothing more than give rise to the occasion which made her injuries possible.” The murder was caused by the intervening criminal act.
  • The New York Court of Appeals court ruled that a school was liable on the basis of negligent supervision for the rape of a 12-year-old girl that occurred when she left a school outing without permission.196 Bell v. Board of Education, 687 N.Y.S.2d 1325 (A.D. 1997). A lower court ruled that the school was not responsible for the victim’s injuries. It concluded that even if the school had negligently supervised the outing it could not be responsible for the victim’s injuries since “the unforeseeable conduct of [the two rapists] constituted a superseding tortious act that absolved the [school] of any culpability for [the victim’s] injuries.” The victim appealed this decision, and the state’s highest court reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled in favor of the victim. The court concluded, “[W]e cannot say that the intervening act of rape was unforeseeable as a matter of law. A rational jury hearing the trial testimony could have determined, as the jury did in this case, that the foreseeable result of the danger created by [the school’s] alleged lack of supervision was injury such as occurred here. A [jury] could have reasonably concluded that the very purpose of the school supervision was to shield vulnerable schoolchildren from such acts of violence. As we have previously recognized, when the intervening, intentional act of another is itself the foreseeable harm that shapes the duty imposed, the defendant who fails to guard against such conduct will not be relieved of liability when that act occurs.”

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