Pastor, Church & Law

Negligent Supervision of Church Workers—Other Cases

§ 10.11

Key point 10-11. 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.

Other circumstances in which courts have found churches guilty of negligent supervision include a youth activity in which a 9-year-old boy was killed when a utility pole crushed him;138 Glorioso v. YMCA of Jackson, 540 So.2d 638 (Miss. 1989).a church picnic during which a 15-year-old boy was rendered a quadriplegic when he fell out of a tree;139 Logan v. Old Enterprise Farms, Ltd., 544 N.E.2d 998 (Ill. App. 1989).a church picnic at which a child drowned; 140 Herring v. R.L. Mathis Certified Dairy Co., 162 S.E.2d 863 (Ga. 1968), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, Bourn v. Herring, 166 S.E.2d 89 (Ga. 1969). See also L.M. Jeffords v. Atlanta Presbytery, Inc., 231 S.E.2d 355 (Ga. 1976); Brown v. Church of Holy Name of Jesus, 252 A.2d 176 (R.I. 1969).

allowing a dangerous condition to continue in a crowded church service, which resulted in injury to a member;141 Bass v. Aetna Insurance Co., 370 So.2d 511 (La. 1979).permitting a snowmobile party on farmland without making an adequate inspection for dangerous conditions;142 Sullivan v. Birmingham Fire Insurance Co., 185 So.2d 336 (La. 1966), cert. denied, 186 So.2d 632 (La. 1966).and failing to adequately supervise the activities of a church-sponsored scout troop.143 Kearney v. Roman Catholic Church, 295 N.Y.S.2d 186 (N.Y. 1968).

Case studies

An Arizona court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries suffered by a 4-year-old child at the church’s childcare facility.144 Ward v. Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, 873 P.2d 688 (Ariz. App. 1994).A 4-year-old child broke his leg while in a childcare center operated by a church. The injury occurred when the child fell while running, although no employee of the childcare center actually saw the boy fall. The boy’s parents later sued the church, claiming that their son’s injuries were a direct result of the church’s negligence in failing to adequately supervise children. Specifically, they alleged that the church has a legal duty to watch and supervise children within its care, and that this duty was breached “as no one saw [the boy] as he fell.” A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and a state appeals court affirmed this decision. The appeals court relied on the following statement by the state supreme court in a previous case: “To hold that [a teacher] had to anticipate [a student’s] act and somehow circumvent it is to say that it is the responsibility of a school teacher to anticipate the myriad of unexpected acts which occur daily in and about schools and school premises, the penalty for failure of which would be financial responsibility in negligence. We do not think that either the teacher or the district should be subject to such harassment nor is there an invocable legal doctrine or principle which can lead to such an absurd result.”145 Morris v. Ortiz, 437 P.2d 652 (1968).The court noted, “While supervisors of a day nursery are charged with the highest degree of care toward the children placed in their custody, they are nevertheless not the absolute insurers of their safety and cannot be expected or required to prevent children from falling or striking each other during the course of normal childhood play.” The court insisted that “a short absence from supervision of a child is not the proximate cause of the child’s injury if the supervisor’s presence and attention would not have prevented the injury.” The court concluded, “[The boy] slipped out of view of the caregiver for a few seconds at most. No evidence has been presented that he would not have been injured had he been in the caregiver’s sight.” Accordingly, the parents “have failed to present any evidence to support an inference that the caregiver’s supervision, whether negligent or not, proximately caused [the boy’s] broken leg.”

A California court ruled that a church was not responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries suffered by a volunteer worker who fell while on a ladder repainting the church. The victim alleged that the church was liable for his injuries on the basis of negligent supervision because it knew or should have known that the volunteers who held the ladder had poor judgment and would act with reckless disregard for his safety, and failed to sufficiently investigate the volunteers before assigning them to the work. The court rejected this basis of liability, noting that “holding a ladder is unskilled work” and that the victim produced no evidence showing that the volunteers “were somehow incapable of properly holding the ladder.” Further, the victim admitted that the volunteers had held the ladder correctly for a significant length of time prior to the accident. The mere fact that the victim fell “is not sufficient to show that the volunteers let go of the ladder because they were somehow incapable of the job and the church should have known it.”146 Amarra v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, 2003 WL 254023 (Cal. App. 2003).

A New York court ruled that a church was not liable for injuries suffered by a child who fell from a piece of playground equipment on church property during an organized “after school” program. The court concluded that no reasonable person could conclude that the victim’s injuries were due to the church’s negligence: “The victim was not engaged in any rough or inappropriate play prior to the accident and the church was not on notice of any horseplay or defective condition so as to warrant closer supervision or intervention. Accordingly, the degree of supervision afforded by the church was reasonable and adequate under the circumstances, and the child’s injury was not caused by a lack of supervision.”147 Berdecia v. City of New York, 735 N.Y.S.2d 554 (N.Y.A.D. 2001).

An Ohio appeals court ruled that a church was not liable, on the basis of negligent supervision, for the choking death of a minor while attending a church camp, since such an accident was not reasonably foreseeable.148 41 N.E.3d 1275 (Ohio App. 2015).

A Texas court ruled that a church was not liable, on the basis of negligent supervision, for injuries suffered by a teenager who broke his neck during a youth activity. A church’s youth pastor (Pastor Kevin) organized a back-to-school activity for the church’s teenagers, which included a game of “capture the flag.” During this game, played in a church member’s hay pasture, a 15-year-old boy (the victim) broke his neck while trying to take the flag from two other teenage boys who were holding onto the flag and carrying it toward their team’s base. The victim’s parents sued the church, claiming that it had been negligent in supervising Pastor Kevin and that its negligence caused the injury. A state appeals court concluded that the church was not negligent. It referred to the senior pastor’s testimony, in which he recounted how he had carefully checked the references for Pastor Kevin and the training he had received in preparation to be a church youth minister. Pastor Kevin had been instructed on providing recreational activities for teenagers during his seminary education. Part of this training focused on providing a safe environment for church youth activities. During the three years while Pastor Kevin was youth minister for the church, he continued his training to improve his performance as a youth minister. The senior pastor asserted that Pastor Kevin had done an outstanding job as youth minister for the church, and explained that he regularly supervised games and other recreational activities for the church’s teenagers. Even the victim’s parents conceded during their testimony that Pastor Kevin had been a good youth minister for the church. All of the other witnesses at trial testified to the good job that Pastor Kevin did in handling all of his responsibilities as a youth minister. No one offered an opposing view, or suggested that the church was negligent in its supervision of Pastor Kevin.” The court concluded that there was no evidence suggesting that the church had negligently supervised Pastor Kevin, and therefore the lawsuit had to be dismissed.149 Lynch v. Pruitt Baptist Church, 2005 WL 736998 (Tex. App. 2005).

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