Pastor, Church & Law

Denominational Liability—In General

§ 10.18

There exist a plethora of national, regional, state, and local agencies of national and international religious bodies (herein “denominations”). These agencies can be liable for their own acts. For example, they may be directly liable for the negligent driving of an officer or employee; defamatory statements in denominational publications; or unlawful discrimination or wrongful termination claims involving their own employees.

However, denominational agencies also have been sued for the acts and obligations of affiliated churches and ministers. Such lawsuits often are little more than a search for a “deep pocket” out of which to pay damages when the local church has inadequate insurance coverage or financial resources. Most of these cases fall into one of two categories: (1) incidents of sexual misconduct by clergy or lay church workers, or (2) personal injuries resulting from accidents (on church property, during church activities, or involving a church vehicle).

The alleged basis for denominational liability in such cases generally will be one or more of the theories of liability addressed previously in this chapter in connection with the liability of local churches. To illustrate, if a denominational agency is sued because of the sexual misconduct of a minister, the agency may be sued on the basis of respondeat superior; negligent selection, supervision, or retention of the minister; or breach of a fiduciary duty. Some plaintiffs have asserted that a denominational agency will be liable in such cases on the basis of an “agency” relationship with the offending minister.

The following subsections will address (1) court rulings finding denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches (often referred to as vicarious, secondary or ascending liability); (2) court rulings finding denominational agencies not liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches; (3) defenses to liability; and (4) risk management.

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