Monday, June 1, 2015
C.A. Revives Abuse Claims Against Church Over Camp Incident
Panel Says Defendant May Have Breached Duty Arising From Its ‘Special Relationship’ With Victim and Parents
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The operator of a summer camp has a special relationship with its young campers and their parents, from which arises a duty to inform the parents if the child is sexually abused while attending, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
The panel reinstated part of a lawsuit by the parents of a girl, identified as Jane Doe, allegedly molested as a 7-year-old in 2007 by Keith Woodhouse, a counselor at the camp later charged with molesting a number of children while working as a teacher’s assistant.
The child was allegedly touched inappropriately by Woodhouse at Camp on the Hill, operated by The First Baptist Church of San Jose, also known as the Church on the Hill. The parents claimed that the church received reliable information from lifeguards suggesting that Woodhouse abused the girl at the camp swimming pool, and that he was holding the girl when the lifeguards ordered him to release her.
The church’s pastor Elliot Sands, the parents alleged, failed to notify them or law enforcement, instead firing Woodhouse and ordering him not to return to the church property, although he was later rehired.
Sands allegedly told police he did not report the molestations because the child did not appear traumatized. The parents said they did not know their daughter had been abused until 2013, when they learned it in the course of the police investigation.
Their daughter was interviewed by police in 2011, but the parents said they were told at the time that she was a witness and not told she may have been a victim.
The parents sued the church for assault and battery; negligence; negligence per se; negligent hiring, retention, and supervision; negligent infliction of emotional distress; and intentional and negligent concealment of the molestation. In connection with the concealment counts, they alleged that they and the child suffered harm as a result of the delay in discovering and treating the psychological damage that Jane Doe suffered as a result of being molested.
Demurrer Partly Overruled
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Carol Overton overruled the church’s demurrer, except as to the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, as to which leave to amend was granted, and the concealment claims, which were dismissed without leave to amend. The judge reasoned that the church had a duty to protect the children from harm, but not a duty to disclose any harm after it occurred.
The parents sought a writ of mandate or prohibition overturning the partial dismissal, and the Court of Appeal stayed all trial court proceedings pending its ruling. Friday it granted the writ.
Justice Adrienne Grover explained that the church had a “special relationship” with Jane Doe and her parents, and the duty extended to informing the parents if any harm came to the church while she was attending camp.
Grover acknowledged that the use of a fraud-by-concealment theory in a suit based on persona; injury, as opposed to business fraud, was “novel.” But public policy supports the parents’ position based on the facts alleged, she said, in particular the allegations that the church knew Woodhouse had a sexual interest in young girls, yet hired him as a counselor and took no action when other employees reported inappropriate behavior, the jurist said.
She cited Tarasoff v. Regents (1976) 17 Cal.3d 425, which renders mental health professionals potentially liable for tort damages for failure to disclose that a patient has threatened physical harm.
“Here, based on Camp’s special relationships with Woodhouse as an employee and with parents and minor as customers of its summer camp business, we conclude that disclosure of the suspected molestation to parents was part of Camp’s duty to act reasonably and prevent harm,” the justice wrote.
“Contrary to the trial court’s reasoning, a duty to prevent harm and a duty to disclose are not discrete but are rather both part of the general duty to act reasonably.”
Imposition of such a duty, she added, is consistent with the multifactor analysis laid out in Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, because it was foreseeable that the parents and child would suffer harm if the parents were not told what had happened, the likelihood of injury was high, and the moral blameworthiness of the conduct significantly outweighed any harm the church would have suffered had it made timely disclosure.
The case is Doe v. Superior Court (First Baptist Church of San Jose, 15 S.O.S. 2711.
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