Legal issues often follow close on the heels of technological advances. To keep up with ever-changing technology, state and federal laws continue to change.
Overview of laws as of October 31, 2013:
Handheld cell phone use while operating a vehicle has been prohibited in 12 states plus Washington D.C. Those states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois (effective January 1, 2014), Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia. Furthermore, these laws are classified as “primary enforcement,” which means someone can be ticketed for violating that law without any other traffic offense.
Thirty-seven states plus Washington D.C. ban all use of cell phones by novice drivers—mainly adolescents.
Text messaging while driving is banned for drivers of all ages in 41 states plus Washington D.C. There are currently calls in Congress to enact federal legislation regarding text messaging while driving, which would apply to all states.
How do these laws affect church liability?
The following are four ways a church could potentially be found liable:
- Negligence. For example, while texting, a pastor causes an accident.
- Employer liability. As employers, churches carry responsibility for the negligent acts of employees committed during their duties, including driving for ministry purposes and church business.
- Negligence in violating a statute (negligence per se). For instance, if you injure or kill someone while violating an applicable statute, the negligence does not have to be proven.
- Gross negligence. This type of negligence is the failure to exercise even slight care and is much more serious than ordinary negligence. It can place a church and its individual board members at risk for lawsuit, which may include the payment of compensatory and punitive damages. Some examples of gross negligence could include the following: (a) failing to adopt a policy prohibiting cell phone use when driving, (b) failing to screen staff and volunteers who work with minors, (c) using 15-passenger vans without restriction, (d) using non-compliant cribs in the church nursery or daycare.
Churches should adopt a written policy to address cell phone use for all church employees, including the pastoral staff, in accordance with state laws.
Furthermore, continual education in staff meetings is recommended. Inform all employees of the legal risks of not following the policy. Consider a progressive discipline policy for its violation. For example, the first offense results in a reprimand, the second a week off without pay, and the third dismissal. In those states where there is already a statute regulating cell phone use, this discipline policy should be much tougher. For instance, after a first offense, an employee receives a week without pay and after a second offense, dismissal. If a church is not prepared to enforce its own policy, it could be deemed negligent in the event of a lawsuit.
Church liability is a dynamic issue. Pastors and board members should keep tabs on state laws and adjust current church policies or develop new ones as needed.