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 with injuries related to inadequate property maintenance or the removal of snow and ice hazards.
"We see 10 times as many people being injured in falls on church property as cases of child sexual abuse," said Spacek, whose Iowa-based company insures approximately 43,000 churches.
The Tampa verdict demonstrates that ministers and church leaders need to diligently oversee activities like youth outings and mission trips, said Glenn Wood, pastor of administration at Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. A multi-site, 13-campus operation with 10,500 weekly attendees, Seacoast's staff will also need to inform volunteers of the verdict so they know that "these are the times we're living in," he said.
"It is also going to require us to do a little due diligence and make sure we have the right kind of [insurance] coverage," Wood said. "There can always be glitches."
No matter their size, churches must weigh insurance decisions on the nature and frequency of activities against net value of their assets, said church law expert Richard Hammar.
"If a church has a youth program that has frequent meetings involving several minors … provides counseling, or hosts community activities," said the attorney, "then its liability risks are increased, and it should be looking for higher insurance limits."
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The St. Petersburg Times has more on the Idlewild case.
Christianity Today International publishes Church Law & Tax Report, which "provides legal, tax, and risk management resources and training for clergy and religious organizations."
Other articles from Christianity Today and its sister publications on church risk management and liability issues include:
Is My Church Covered? | Why now is a smart time for leaders to evaluate insurance coverage. (Your Church, May 20, 2010)
For Churches, How Much Risk Is Too Much? | For some leaders, taking steps to prevent disasters is a matter of faithfulness. (February 10, 2010)
Playground Liability | The definition of "gross negligence" is questioned. (Your Church, June 6, 2008)
Insurance Assurance | What every church needs to fortify itself against injuries, loss, or lawsuits. (Your Church, July 1, 2000)