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Liability for abuse or child maltreatment in a church, religious institution, or school setting – Negligent Retention or Negligent Supervision

When a trusted teacher or religious leader abuses or mistreats a child, the impact on the child and child’s family is no doubt devastating. While the physical impacts of the abuse, whether it is improper discipline, neglect, or sexual abuse may heal, the long-term emotional aspects may follow the child for the rest of his or her life.

The question often presented in these types of cases is what type of liability, if any, should the church, religious institution, or school have for the bad acts of their agent or volunteer? This is a fact specific question and will depend on what happened in each case. However, the most important question is what prior notice did the institution have of their employee’s or volunteer’s potential threat to the children in his or her care.

The applicable legal term is “foreseeability.” One dictionary defines “foreseeable” as “being such as may be reasonably anticipated.” If the actions of the agent or volunteer are “foreseeable,” then the institution may be held liable under the theories of negligent retention or negligent supervision. One North Carolina case that discusses this is Smith v. Privette, 128 N.C. App. 490, 494-95 (1998), which states that a negligent supervision claim requires “that the incompetent employee committed a tortious act resulting in injury to plaintiff and that prior to the act, the employer knew or had reason to know of the employee’s incompetency.”

So, in these types of cases, a school or religious institution is not automatically responsible when one of their agents mistreats a child. The teach or religious leader can, of course, be prosecuted, dismissed, and sued. But to make a claim against the institution, more is needed. The institution had to know, or have a reason to know, that the person was a threat.

In some cases, prior complaints against that individual by other children or parents may serve as that notice. In other cases, the prior complaints may have been made by co-workers, co-employees, or volunteers. Sometimes the parents become aware of complaints from other parents or teachers. Other times, its necessary to hire a private investigator to research the background of the individual and determine if there are other complaints.

In any case, lawsuits against institutions such as churches, religious institutions, or schools, are not straightforward and will require substantial research and likely litigation by an experienced plaintiff’s lawyer. If your child or loved one was abused or maltreated by a teacher, volunteer, or religious leader in North Carolina, make an appointment to speak with us today. We have about two decades of experience in handling such cases and can evaluate whether or not you should make a claim.  


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