Don’t Let This Happen In Your Church

This is a good example of how a plaintiff attorney positions a case in an attempt to hold the church responsible. The perpetrator was not yet an official member of the church or part of the staff, yet the church was held partially responsible for the judgment. Does your church have a written program to prevent abuse? Do you follow it faithfully?

Braselton, Georgia –

A jury in Jefferson awarded $8 million to a young man who was sexually assaulted by a church youth volunteer. But the plaintiff may receive only $800,000 because the only defendant with assets, the now-disbanded church, was found 10 percent responsible.

The trial before Jackson County Superior Court Judge David Motes lasted a week and a day. The jury reached a verdict April 13 in favor of the plaintiff, whom the Daily Report is not naming because he is a victim of sexual assault.

He was 14 in October 2010 when he was invited by a friend to attend a Wednesday night youth event at Zion Baptist Church in Braselton. He met the perpetrator in the church fellowship hall, a 21-year-old man who had volunteered to help with youth activities, according to records filed with the court by both sides. The following Sunday after church, he was invited to take a walk on a nearby nature trail, where he was assaulted.

The verdict apportioned 90 percent of the fault to the volunteer, Joshua Humphrey, who admitted to the crime, pleaded guilty to two counts of child molestation and is serving a 20-year prison sentence, according to court records. The jury apportioned only 10 percent of the fault to the church. The plaintiff’s name was also on the verdict form for apportionment, but the jury did not find him to be responsible.

“The church let the wolf in the door,” plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Harris of Harris Penn Lowry told the jury in his opening statement, according to the transcript. Harris tried the case with Jed Manton and Yvonne Godfrey of his firm and William Hicks of Hicks Massey & Gardner in Winder, who originally filed the lawsuit. Harris called the church’s conduct “the worst kind of negligence.”

The plaintiff’s case focused on the responsibility of a church to screen volunteers and check backgrounds and references to protect children from predators.

“I think this is a really important case,” Harris said in an interview. “Churches need to be reminded that they’ve got a lot of responsibility for kids.”

Carrie Christie of Rutherford & Christie, representing Zion Baptist, argued that the church was not to blame for several reasons. The perpetrator was not a member and had not had his application to be a youth leader approved. The church denied accepting responsibility for the boy because his mother “dropped him off in the parking lot,” according to the defense summary. Plus, the defense argued, the sexual assault took place after the church had closed for the day on a Sunday, and not on church property but in a wooded area a mile or two away.

Christie said her client was pleased with the outcome of the trial.

“Although the plaintiff’s attorneys asked the jury to apportion significant blame to the church, asking that they find the church at least 50 percent liable, the jury rejected that argument, finding only minimal fault on behalf of our client and awarding a negligible 10 percent,” Christie said in an email.

“The remainder of the verdict, $7.2 million, was awarded against the perpetrator, who pled guilty to two counts of child molestation, was in default, was not represented at trial and offered no defense to the charges.”

The church’s insurance carrier, Southern Mutual Church Insurance, retained Christie to defend Zion and chose not to defend Humphrey. But Harris said he believes the church’s liability extends to Humphrey as a volunteer.

The question of insurance coverage will have to be resolved in a separate court. A few days after the verdict, Southern Mutual filed a declaratory judgment suit in federal court to determine coverage questions. Harris said he believes that “ample coverage” is available to cover the judgment, which has not yet been entered.

An important witness in the civil trial and the underlying criminal case was a friend of the plaintiff who was also 14 at the time and witnessed the sexual assault, according to both attorneys and court records. The witness went home with his friend afterward and told the parents, who reported the crime to police.

The plaintiff, now 18, also testified, although he was not present for most of the trial. Harris explained to the jury that hearing the rest of the testimony would not be helpful to his recovery. The young man’s treating psychiatrist served as his expert witness, testifying to the devastating effects of childhood sexual abuse.

Another expert witness testified to standard policies and procedures that churches should follow, including background checks, reference interviews and supervision of volunteers. “They have a duty to protect from a known danger,” Harris said. “Youth groups attract predators.”

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