Verdict: Church Found 49% Responsible
Settlement: 3.8 Million Dollars-
Churches must acknowledge the pastor/congregant dynamic and ensure that the desires of their followers to serve the church, doesn’t overcome safety precautions. CACI 401 discusses the basic standard of care in negligence cases. The last line instructs the jury, “You must decide how a reasonably careful person would have acted in defendant’s situation.” The key part of the instruction is in defendant’s situation.
After more than eight years of litigation Case Barnett Law took the reigns of this case in 2013. We decided to change the theory of the case to better reflect the true shortcomings of the church and its lead pastor. We argued:
1) The reasonable person standard of CACI 401 means a reasonable pastor needs to acknowledge and account for his influence in the Church.
2) A reasonable pastor needs to ensure that his congregants are not unnecessarily exposing themselves to harm for the betterment of the Church.
3) A volunteer is an employee and should be protected by Cal-Osha standards.
4) A church assumes the responsibility for the safety of a worksite, when they choose not to hire licensed individuals.
The third issue would have meant that any Cal-Osha violations by the Church would have made them strictly liable for any injuries suffered by Dennis Scharf because of those violations. Ultimately, the court found that Dennis Scharf, as a volunteer was not a statutory employee and therefor not entitled to the protections of Cal-Osha. This issue is novel, as there are no cases directly on point. But, theoretically, if you have an individual, performing work that requires a license, and that individual does not have a license, then that individual becomes an employee pursuant to labor code section 2750.5. But, the court found that a volunteer, who is unpaid, does not get those protections (while someone paid, who is unlicensed, would get the protections).
Ultimately, the jury found that the general negligence of the church and pastor under theories 1, 2 and 4. The church had received a quote to get the work done for $35,000. The Church choose to With this decision, the Church assumed responsibility for the safe construction of the Church.
The defense in the case moved to bifurcate liability and damages. At first, we opposed the motion under the general theory that plaintiffs want the liability and damages issue to buttress each other. After further consideration, we withdrew our opposition to the motion, and decided that a jury would be more likely to put a greater liability on the church, if the amount the plaintiff was claiming in recover was not before the jury.
After 2 weeks of trial, a Riverside jury returned a liability verdict against the Church finding Dennis Scharf 51% responsible, and the Church and the Pastor 49% responsible.
The insurance company had rejected multiple offers to settle this case at or below the policy limits of $1million. Facing a potential substantial verdict, the insurance company came to the table willing to negotiate.
Rather than spend several more years in litigation regarding this case, and then trying to collect against the insurance company in a bad faith claim, plaintiffs agreed to settle all claims for $3.8 million. This settlement was nothing short of a miracle given that the case had been thrown out on appeal and the highest defense offer was $200,000.
If you have been injured in an accident contact Case Barnett Law for a free consultation.