This edition of Mentor Online is adapted from an article by Stephen Chawaga in Your Church (May/June 2001).
Ten of the most common lawsuits faced by churches today:
- Suits based on negligence — general public. Churches can be held liable for accidents caused by dangers on your property that you knew about but the general public did not. A prominently posted warning sign can both avoid injuries and absolve the church.
- Suits based on negligence — parishioners. To avoid this suit it imperative to both warm members and visitors about dangers but exercise reasonable care and take necessary precautions to ensure their safety.
- Suits based on negligence — “nuisances” that attract children. To avoid this suit it is imperative that churches attend to the duty to keep children safe from conditions against which you might expect them to be unable to protect them — even when they are trespassing.
- Suits based on negligence — supervision of employees. To avoid this suit the congregation must attend to the duty to protect the public and members against any violent or criminal propensities of the employee that come to your attention. This oversight duty extends only to conduct that is foreseeable by a reasonable person and only to events that relate to work done for you.
- Suits based upon sexual harassment. Church staff can become vulnerable to charges of sexual harassment. Anyone in the church in a position of authority can accused of an intemperate remark or even a pattern of improper conduct while supervising employees or counseling members. It is wise for church staff and other leaders to receive education about sexual harassment and other boundary issues.
- Suits based upon defamation. Defamation is the publication to a third party of false or misleading information that you know will cause a person to the loss of reputation or other injury. Disparaging remarks about terminated employees or disciplined members can be the foundation for a defamation suit and therefore have not place in such situations.
- Suits based upon apparent authority. To avoid costly and embarrassing chaos about contractual matters (written or oral) can be avoided if church has outlined, in writing, who has budget and hiring authority for these matters.
- Suits based on disputes over election of the pastor. To avoid litigation over selection of a minister a congregation must attend to the development of a written policy with regard to the issues of control and authority in this matter.
- Suits based upon disclosure of confidential information. To avoid exposure to charges of invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress a congregation must ensure that information that should be kept private is not made public.
- Suits based upon unfair acts. The leaders of congregations need to avoid the risk that it will be subjected to the requirements of relevant unfair practices acts. This is especially significant when the church is involved in money-making activities.