This is the first in a series of blog posts by Bill McKinnon, a long-serving youth volunteer, church elder, and lawyer which will cover some common legal issues in youth ministry.

It’s 1am on the night of your middle school lock in. Things are going great, you’re on your third Red Bull, and the kids are having a blast, when one of your volunteers runs in and says “Matt fell playing dodgeball in the gym. His arm looks pretty bad.” You call Matt’s parents and get him to the hospital. By 6am, you’ve heard back that the arm is broken in two places and Matt will be in a cast for eight weeks, but is otherwise fine.

Once you finish a prayer of thanks the arm wasn’t worse, your mind starts racing. Matt’s parents don’t go to your church and you don’t know them. Will they sue? Would a court make your church pay? How much? Should you have done anything differently? You call your trusty lawyer friend from the church, who says the answer to your questions is “It depends” (don’t you hate lawyers!).

This blog post will explain a little about how the legal system looks at these sorts of “personal injury” or “tort” cases.

The key principle is that you and your church are not responsible for any accident that happens at a youth event. If you were, you would be an insurance company, not a church. In general, you are responsible for accidents where you or your staff (which includes volunteers) acted in a way that fell below the “standard of care” expected of a youth ministry. Put another way, you are liable for things that happen when you or your staff act unreasonably- when you fail to live up to what a hypothetical “reasonable youth worker” would do.

So when would you be liable to Matt’s parents? You’d probably be liable if you saw a big puddle of water on the gym floor and didn’t clean it up, and that’s where Matt fell. You’d probably be liable if you let the kids play dodgeball with softballs. You’d probably be liable if there was a hole in the gym floor and Matt fell through it. You would probably not be liable if it was just a run of the mill game of dodgeball and two students collided. They key is, did you and your staff act reasonably or not?

You may be thinking, “How do I know, in the heat of the moment, what a ‘reasonable youth worker’ would do?” Well, obviously, you need to keep student safety as a priority concern and think about each event in terms of safety. But beyond that, you need to talk to other youth workers and read and listen to what other youth workers are doing. An example: “Chubby Bunny” was a common game when I was in youth group. The object was to cram as many marshmallows into your mouth as possible while still being able to say “chubby bunny” without spitting or swallowing. I loved it! It was “reasonable” for my youth leader to have students play “Chubby Bunny” back in ancient times (1990!).

However, since then, there have been at least two documented cases of people choking to death playing Chubby Bunny. This danger is now widely known, and a “reasonable” youth worker would no longer use that game. If you did, and a student choked, you’d likely be sued and lose. What’s “reasonable” for a youth worker is different in 2014 than it as when I was a student, at least with regard to “Chubby Bunny.”

This doesn’t mean that unless you’ve heard a story about a student being injured doing that activity, you’re fine. The standard is a “reasonable youth worker.” Chainsaw juggling is a no-no even if no student has ever been injured doing that. On the flip side, just because a student is injured doesn’t mean you need to stop. Sometimes accidents happen. Even professional basketball players occasionally break a leg – that doesn’t mean you need to stop shooting hoops with your students.

Risk analysis and mitigation is a topic for another post, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two common youth activities you need to be extremely cautious about: water activities and transporting students in vehicles. The chances for a very serious or fatal accident are much higher with these two than other youth activities. I’m not saying don’t do them – our youth ministry does both – but they are by far the most risky activities a typical youth group does. A student is not likely to die if they fall playing soccer. Cars and water are different: car accidents are the number one cause of accidental death among youth group age students (12-18) and drowning is number three (number two is accidental poisoning, if you were wondering). So be very cautious and thoughtful when planning out vehicle trips and water activties.

The next topic will be the concrete steps you should take if an accident happens! See you next week – and if you have legal questions about youth ministry, feel free to email them to [email protected] and I’ll try to share some thoughts about them in future blog posts.

NOTE: Download Youth Ministry does not give legal advice, and posts are for your consideration and processing of similar events in your ministry. They are meant to be conversation starters in your ministry, not legal counsel.  If you find yourself in a situation that requires legal advice, please consult a lawyer through your church or ministry.