In my first blog entry, I used the example of “Mark,” a hypothetical student who breaks his arm at a lock-in. This entry will discuss why you should document accidents like this, and how to document.
Obviously, the first priority in handling an accident is to take care of the student. But once Mark’s parents have taken him off to the hospital, are you done? No! As soon as is humanly possible, you need to document what happened in writing.
Why should you do this? Because the legal process moves very slowly. The “statute of limitations” (how long a person has to file a lawsuit) on a personal injury lawsuit varies from state to state, but is often three years or more. And that’s just the time limit to start the lawsuit. The actual lawsuit could take one to three years more. This means that if Mark’s parents do decide to sue your church, it could very easily be three to five years after the accident before you and the other witnesses are testifying.
Will you still be at your church in three to five years? Will your volunteers? And if you are, will you remember what happened that much later? I don’t know about you, but I have trouble remembering what I ate for lunch yesterday. Would you be able to remember, as one example, which adults were supervising the dodgeball game when Mark broke his arm, three to five years after it happened? No? That’s why you document.
Documenting helps in two main ways. First, if either the youth pastor or volunteers have left the church when the lawsuit finally happens, it lets the new guy or gal know what happened so they can help the church’s lawyer. Secondly, the memo(s) will refresh the memory of the witnesses.
Here are some basic guidelines on how to document:
1) Do it as soon as possible. Memories fade. Don’t wait for someone to type up what they saw and email it to you next week. Have the witnesses write it down now, right there, on the spot right after the accident. Pass out paper and pens and take care of it.
2) Just the facts. Tell the witnesses not to speculate or guess – just write what they know and saw. Do include, though, any medical treatment provided at the scene of the accident, how the student go to the hospital, and similar details.
3) Each person does their own. Don’t try to make a “master memo.” Have each witness/participant write their own.
4) No legalese. Don’t get fancy. Just use regular English and try to make it easy to understand and follow.
5) Write your own memo, even if you weren’t there. As the youth pastor, you are the person in charge. So, even if you weren’t there, write something like: “Mark Jones broke his arm in a dodgeball game supervised bv volunteers Jane Doe and John Smith. I was supervising capture the flag on the lawn at the time.”
6) Sign and date it. Self-explanatory, but each person should sign and date their memo.
That’s it! Put the memos in your filing cabinet, or scan them onto your computer, and forget them. More than likely, they’ll never see the light of day. But in the unlikely event there is a lawsuit years later, you’ll be very glad they are there!
This is the latest in a series of blog posts by Bill McKinnon, a long-serving youth volunteer, church elder, and lawyer which covers some common legal issues in youth ministry – email him questions you would like to see answered in his posts right here: firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog post is general commentary on the law and is not intended to be legal advice to any person or organization. Check out DYM’s Incident Reports you can download for $3 right here!