Churches: Minimizing Possibility of a Lawsuit

Oklahoma churches should take notice and be cautioned by a wrongful death lawsuit filed recently against a St. Louis area church and its youth program.

The mother of a Missouri teen who stabbed his brother and then committed suicide two years ago has filed the wrongful death suit against the church the teenager attended.

From what little I have read about the case in media reports, I think it doubtful that the suit will succeed. However, a church never wants to be the target of a lawsuit, even if the church has a good defense against the claim of wrongdoing.

Not only must the Missouri church suffer the heartache of losing one of its young people under tragic circumstances, but it must also endure the damage to its reputation that may result from media coverage, as well as the legal bills it may incur defending itself against the suit.

The lawsuit was filed in St. Louis County Court in Clayton, MO, against San Francisco Temple Christian Assembly. According to news reports, the lawsuit claims that a young man, 17 at the time, who had autism and pervasive thoughts attacked his brother and then took his own life after discussing his problems with a youth worker at the church.

The lawsuit alleges that the youth worker asked the teen to write a letter to put what he was feeling down on paper. The youth complied, writing a letter that reportedly revealed that he was considering killing himself and others. On a Sunday in May 2012, the teen brought the letter to church and gave it to the youth worker. The youth worker apparently did not look at the letter immediately, but put it in her purse to read later.

However, later that same day, the teenager stabbed his brother and then stabbed himself, resulting in his own death. The brother survived the attack.

According to the mother’s attorney, one basis for the claim against the church is that the youth worker was providing counseling to the teen, and that counseling carries with it “a duty to the people that you’re counseling.” The church has filed a motion to dismiss, arguing according to one news report that the youth worker is not a mental health worker.

Some Suggestions for Churches

Here are some practical suggestions for churches that want to minimize the chance of a lawsuit as well as to be well-positioned to defend themselves if a suit is filed.

• Pastors and lay leaders must exercise active oversight over all aspects of the church’s programs and ministries, especially programs that involve children and teenagers. Judges and juries know that no organization can keep everyone safe at all times. If a church can demonstrate that it is diligent about trying to minimize risks, that will be a big help in the church’s defense.

• Churches that offer counseling services must be especially careful about who is authorized to provide counseling, what kind of training the counselors have received, and especially how the counselors respond to signs of danger.

• Thorough background checks should be performed on all children’s workers and youth workers.

• Youth workers should be trained in how they will respond to potential problems. News stories such as this one can be used to periodically discuss what the church is doing now and what it should be doing to avoid problems.

• A church should make sure it has adequate insurance coverage for all liabilities.

More Information about Wrongful Deaths

For more information about wrongful death, see our webpage: “FAQs About Wrongful Death Legal Actions in Oklahoma.”

If you have lost a loved one under tragic circumstances in which you believe a business, organization or individual did not exercise reasonable care, contact Hasbrook & Hasbrook for a free legal consultation. When an organization opens its doors or offers services to the public, it has a legal obligation to take reasonable measures to prevent people from experiencing harm.

If you have experienced a tragic loss under such circumstances, telephone us at 405-235-1551 or toll-free at 866-416-4737, send me an email at cth@hasbrooklaw.com, or use our online Contact Form.