Churches in the Commonwealth of Virginia are covered by the doctrine of Charitable Immunity, which keeps individuals that benefit from a charity from bringing legal action against the charity because of negligence on the part of a charity employee. Who benefits from a charity? Potentially, anyone who walks into a church or participates in any of its activities including parishioners, wedding guests, members of the congregation, special event attendees and more. While this doctrine protects churches in many scenarios, there are exceptions.
What is covered under Charitable Immunity?
Simple negligence is a failure to exercise the usual level of diligence that an ordinarily careful person would be expected to use. For example, your church bus driver was speeding with passengers in the bus, and slammed on the breaks suddenly to avoid a collision, then slammed into a phone pole. A jury decides that if the bus was driving within the speed limit, the driver could have used the breaks to stop the bus and prevent an accident. Normal people are expected to drive in a reasonably safe manner which includes not speeding, but because of charitable immunity, the church is not liable for the driver’s simple negligence, even though he is an employee of the church.
What is not covered under Charitable Immunity?
Churches will be exposed to liability if they do not appropriately screen their employees. In one Virginia case, a church employee was accused of sexually assaulting a young girl. The girl’s mother sued the church for negligent hiring, pointing out that the employee was convicted of sexual assault and his probation required that he not become involved with children. She argued that the church should be held responsible for the employee’s assault because the church hired and encouraged him to interact with children without properly checking into his background. The Virginia Supreme court held that the church could be held liable for the employee’s actions.
Gross negligence is carelessness that amounts to a complete neglect for the safety of another. Suppose your church youth group has a football team and in an attempt to demonstrate proper tackling form, a youth leader has a 13 year old team member who is half his size stand in front of him. No coach has ever tackled a team member, so the child does not anticipate the impact as the youth leader lifts the child two feet into the air, slams him to the ground, and breaks his arm. He apologizes profusely, but the parents take the case to court. A jury could reasonably conclude that these actions were grossly negligent and therefore the church, as the employer, could be liable for the injury.
Willful negligence describes a situation where someone knows their conduct will probably cause injury to another, but he or she chooses to act anyway. For example, your church hires a painter to paint some classrooms. When the painter arrives, the church janitor is doing some repairs with a power nail driver that uses gunpowder. The painter, who is familiar with such tools, tells the janitor he is using a much larger gunpowder charge than is necessary and he explains a charge that high could send nails right through the wall into the room where he’ll be painting. The janitor nods, and the painter gets to work. A few minutes later, nails come flying through the drywall into the room where the painter is working. He yells for the janitor to stop, but the nails keep coming until one finally hits him in the leg. The painter sues and a jury finds that the janitor, a church employee, was grossly negligent in his actions. In this case the church may not be protected by the doctrine of charitable immunity.
How can you protect your church?
Churches play an important role in the community and it is important to ensure that they avoid legal troubles that could jeopardize this role. If you have questions about the liability of your church or another charitable institution, contact an experienced attorney that specializes in church and charitable law, such as the attorneys at Davis Law Group. We will review your specific situation and advise you on how to deal with the ongoing risk of tort liability so that you can focus on the good work you’re doing for your community.
This blog post generally describes some aspects of the charitable immunity doctrine as applied to churches and is not intended as legal advice. Because every situation is unique, you should consult a qualified attorney to receive specific, complete advice on the legal liability exposure of your church.
This blog was written by Josiah Lindstrom, Law Clerk