An ugly case balancing the marketing program to make people feel safe, which is then used to prove the incident giving rise to the negligence claim, was foreseeable.Posted: January 16, 2017
YMCA summer camp sued in Indiana for sexual assault on a minor by a predator hiding in the woods. The brochure marketing the program specifically outlined how bathroom procedures were to be done. The procedure was not followed in this case, which led to a successful lawsuit.
State: Indiana, Court of Appeals of Indiana
Plaintiff: A.M.D., a Minor, by his Parents and Guardians, John Doe and Jane Doe, and John Doe and Jane Doe, individually
Defendant: Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis
Plaintiff Claims: 1) The YMCA negligently supervised A.M.D.; 2) the YMCA failed to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct by a third-party; 3) the YMCA did not have to be the sole cause of A.M.D.’s injuries; and 4) the YMCA is not released from its responsibility to A.M.D. and his parents by virtue of the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application form signed by Jane Doe.
Defendant Defenses: Release and Superseding or Intervening Cause
Holding: for the Plaintiff
First, this is a case based on a sexual assault of a minor at a day or summer camp offered by the defendant. The case is awful, ugly, and sad.
Second, the issue of whether or not the release was valid for the minor’s injuries was never part of the case. The issue is how the defendant’s rules created a small issue for the situation that of course blew up when the problem the rules attempted to prevent occurred.
The minor was enrolled in a day camp offered by the defendant. The camp was for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade. On the day of the incident, 20 minors and three counselors went to a park to go rafting. The group arrived at the park around 2:00 PM.
The park was not known for any incidents, and no one was spotted that day that gave any concern to the counselors.
When the rafting began, one counselor was stationed at the start and two counselors at the end. Shortly after the rafting started the plaintiff minor told one of the counselors he had to go to the bathroom. The public restrooms were a 10-15-minute walk away. The counselor instructed the minor to go pee on a bush that was within her view. The counselor new about the defendant’s bathroom policy.
Raab [counselor] instructed A.M.D. [minor] to urinate in the bushes, she knew that the YMCA’s bathroom policy required at least one counselor and one buddy to go with a camper to the restroom. No campers were to go to the bathroom by themselves.
When the counselor turned her attention to the creek to check on the other children the minor disappeared.
Unknown to A.M.D. and the YMCA counselors, there was a sexual predator hiding in the woods near where A.M.D. was going to the bathroom. It was later determined that Stephen Taylor was the person hiding in the woods, and who attacked A.M.D. Taylor was so well hidden that A.M.D. did not see Taylor approach him from the front until after he had finished going to the bathroom.
Once Taylor emerged from the woods, he approached A.M.D., told him he was a doctor, and offered to give A.M.D. a piggy-back ride, which A.M.D. accepted. Taylor successfully lured A.M.D. farther into the woods where they were both alone and out of sight from any of the YMCA camp counselors. While hidden in the woods, Taylor sexually assaulted A.M.D.
Once the counselor knew the minor was missing she started screaming his name and looking for him.
The family of the minor filed suit against the defendant YMCA alleging negligence. The YMCA filed a motion for summary judgment claiming:
1) The YMCA was not the proximate cause of A.M.D.’s injuries because Taylor’s criminal actions were not reasonably foreseeable; and 2) the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application signed by Jane Doe released the YMCA from any and all claims.
The plaintiff’s opposed the motion for summary judgment claiming four theories:
…1) The YMCA negligently supervised A.M.D.; 2) the YMCA failed to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct by a third-party; 3) the YMCA did not have to be the sole cause of A.M.D.’s injuries; and 4) the YMCA is not released from its responsibility to A.M.D. and his parents by virtue of the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application form signed by Jane Doe.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based upon these facts.
The appellate court started by establishing the elements the plaintiff’s must prove to win their case. Indiana uses a three-part test to establish negligence.
A plaintiff seeking damages for negligence must establish (1) a duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, (2) a breach of the duty, and (3) an injury proximately caused by the breach of duty. Absent a duty, there can be no breach, and therefore, no recovery for the plaintiff in negligence.
Whether or not there was a duty owed is also a 3-part test in Indiana.
…(1) the relationship between the parties, (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured, and (3) public policy concerns, but that analysis is not necessary where the duty is well settled.
The trial court found the defendant owed a duty to the minor, and this issue was not argued during the appeal. The issue then was causation.
We have held that causation is an essential element of a negligence claim. The injurious act must be both the proximate cause and the cause, in fact, of an injury. Generally, causation, and proximate cause, in particular, is a question of fact for the jury’s determination.
Causation can be broken by a superseding and intervening causation. This means a third party or third action caused the real injury or interrupted the chain of events for the original cause so that the defendant is not longer liable.
The doctrine of superseding or intervening causation has long been part of Indiana’s common law. It provides that when a negligent act or omission is followed by a subsequent negligent act or omission so remote in time that it breaks the chain of causation, the original wrongdoer is relieved of liability. A subsequent act is “superseding” when the harm resulting from the original negligent act “could not have reasonably been foreseen by the original negligent actor.” Whether the resulting harm is “foreseeable” such that liability may be imposed on the original wrongdoer is a question of fact for a jury.
Meaning that the action of the predator in attacking the minor was a superseding and intervening cause of action.
However, if the superseding or intervening cause of action was foreseeable by the defendant, then it does not relieve the defendant of liability. The Restatement (Second) of Torts §449, known as the very duty doctrine, provides an example.
If the likelihood that a third person may act in a particular manner is the hazard or one of the hazards which makes the actor negligent, such an act, whether innocent, negligent, intentionally tortious, or criminal does not prevent the actor from being liable for harm caused thereby. At the heart of these concepts is the necessity for an analysis of foreseeability.
The brochure the defendant created, stated the rules for the camper’s bathroom procedure. This was obviously not followed by the counselor.
No camper is ever alone, and no camper is ever alone with a staff member. All campers will take trips to the bathroom with entire camp and/or camp groups and camp staff. Campers will only use bathrooms inspected for safety by camp staff.
There was additional information requiring the day campers to go to the bathroom in pairs. The defendant also had a code of conduct covering restroom supervision.
[Why is a restroom procedure in a code of conduct?]
3. Restroom supervision: Staff will make sure the restroom is not occupied by suspicious or unknown individuals before allowing children to use the facilities. Staff will stand in the doorway while children are using the restroom. This policy allows privacy for the children and protection for the staff (not being alone with a child). If staff are assisting younger children, doors to the facility must remain open. No child, regardless of age, should ever enter a restroom alone on a field trip. Always send children in pairs, and whenever possible, with staff.
Finally, the court found that counselors were instructed to never leave a child unsupervised.
In particular, a day camp counselor, the position Raab held with the YMCA at the time of the molestation, has the general function of directly supervising approximately twelve campers and taking responsibility for each child’s safety.
The counselor at her deposition testified she knew the procedures.
The court found this information, provided by the defendants own documents and training, showed the defendant knew this type of incident was foreseeable.
We disagree that only one conclusion can be drawn or inferred from the undisputed facts. “[A]n actor need not foresee the exact manner in which harm occurs, but must, in a general way, foresee the injurious consequences of his act.”
The court found three factors were important in the analysis of the issue.
First, courts on review have examined whether the intervening actor is independent from the original actor. Id. Next, we examine whether the instrumentality of harm was under the complete control of the intervening actor. Id. Third, we examine whether the intervening actor as opposed to the original actor is in a better position to prevent the harm.
Consequently, the appellate court held that whether or not the criminal act by the third party was foreseeable was for a jury to decide.
Whether the criminal assault on A.M.D. by a stranger, Taylor, was foreseeable by the YMCA such that the chain of causation was broken, should be decided by a trier of fact and not as a matter of law.
The case was sent back to trial for a jury trial to determine if the actions of the third party were foreseeable.
So Now What?
First, it sucks to have a case like this; however, it has a lot of useful information.
Fifteen to twenty children, some as young as kindergartener’s and three adults for an activity around water, the first issue I suspect most of you thought of was, there are not enough counselors.
Second, with all the written documentation that the defendant created, I don’t believe foreseeability will be difficult to find by the jury. In fact, anyone can argue that the paper was created in response to this possibility, and then obviously the issue was foreseeable.
At the same time, how do you get across to the members of your staff the issues at play here without creating your own noose? Some documentation is required. Create it under the write heading, in the right document if needed. More importantly, train your staff. Don’t just throw paper at them.
Documentation is proof of just being lazy over the winter in this type of situation. Probably because the documentation was found in at least three different places, it was “make work” for three different people. Writing rules down over the winter is easy and lasts for years (decades in too many situations). However, training your staff lasts a lifetime.
Look at who you need to understand what you are writing down. In most cases young men and women who seem not to read much but who can absorb a lot of information. If you expect 20 year olds to read a book for a job, you are your own worst enemy. You are only creating documentation that will be used to prove you or your staff was negligent.
Training allows the information to be absorbed in the way necessary and provides the understanding of the rules. Training says this is how you do it, now show me you know how to do it, and then tell me why you do it this way. Training is a pain for you, and your senior staff, but if you want to solve problems and really help the people, your employees, trains them. Let them know why you have to do things this way and then teach them to do things this way.
Think about it. What is going to be more effective. Giving everyone a book to read at night or creating a scenario from this incident and having your staff act it out and go through the issues.
Don’t create documentation because you have nothing else to do over the winter, or you are trying not to train your staff.
Never create documentation just to punish employees. Those will always come back to haunt you. You can’t sue an employee as a defense anyway, except in extremely rare cases, so why create a situation that will come back to haunt you in other ways.
This is a sad case all around.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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