A $4.75 million judgment against a Tampa congregation in connection with a teen's injuries on a church-sponsored skiing trip is raising awareness of the risks facing churches in a litigious society.

"It's a chilling verdict for everyone concerned," said Simeon May, CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration, which spotlighted risk management in a recent series of seminars nationwide.

"It's very sad that a boy was hurt and that the relationship between his family and church is broken," said Laura Kubenez, director of the child protection ministry at Woodside Bible Church in Troy, Michigan. "I hope the impact is to alert churches that they have to have a [safety] plan and procedures in place."

The mother of a then-14-year-old boy sued Idlewild Baptist Church after he suffered serious spinal and nerve injuries in a 2003 skiing collision at a North Carolina resort. She alleged inadequate instruction and supervision. In late September, a jury awarded the family $5 million, assigning 95 percent of the fault to the 11,000-member church.

Although executive pastor Brian McDougall declined to comment on whether Idlewild plans to appeal the verdict, the news prompted considerable reaction from insurance carriers and church business administrators.

Mark Russ, a senior vice president with Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services in Itasca, Illinois, thinks megachurches are particularly vulnerable. He says their rapid growth and complex ministries, mostly geared toward reaching the unchurched, do not fit "off the shelf" coverage.

"I'm finding an epidemic," Russ said of megachurch insurance shortages.

Since verdicts like Idlewild's are rare, GuideOne Insurance executive Eric Spacek said churches should be more concerned ...

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January 2011

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