Kentucky Appeals Court Affirms Jury Award in Negligent Hiring, Supervision, and Retention Case

by Mandy Hicks

In Big Spring Assembly of God, Inc. v. Stevenson, a youth minister for a church organized a camping trip with several teens. At one point during the trip, the minister took two children to his apartment in his personal automobile. While returning to the campground, the minister apparently allowed a 13-year-old to drive the vehicle. Sadly, the child lost control of the car and caused a wreck. The child died as a result of his injuries.

Before law enforcement officials arrived, the minister allegedly asked the surviving youth to state the minister was driving at the time of the fatal accident. The child initially complied with the minister’s request but later admitted to police that the deceased 13-year-old was behind the wheel when the crash took place. After that, the estate of the deceased child filed a vicarious liability lawsuit against the church that employed the minister and sought damages as a result of the organization’s alleged negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of the man. The decedent’s parents also sought damages for loss of consortium.

A trial court found that both the minister and the child committed negligence as a matter of law and asked jurors to apportion damages over the child’s death. Since Kentucky is a pure comparative fault state, the amount of damages an at-fault defendant is required to pay will normally be reduced by the percentage of fault attributed to the injured or deceased person. Although the jury determined the church was not vicariously responsible for the minister’s negligence because he was acting outside of the scope of his job duties when the deadly wreck occurred, it did hold the organization liable for its negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of him. As a result, jurors awarded the child’s estate $1 million in damages and attributed 80 percent of the fault to the minister’s actions. Since the jury found that the child was 20 percent to blame for his wrongful death, the damages award was reduced to about $800,000. The child’s parents also received approximately $60,000 for their loss of consortium claims.

The circuit court denied the church’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and the organization filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals of Kentucky. In its appeal, the church argued that the lower court committed error when it refused to set aside the jury’s verdict because jurors found that the minister was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the fatal collision. Under the doctrine of vicarious liability, an employer may be held financially responsible for the deeds of an employee who was acting within the scope of his or her job duties if the employer had the right or ability to control the worker at the time of the act. After examining the relevant case law, the appellate court stated the negligent hiring, supervision, and retention tort does not rely on vicarious liability and instead holds an employer directly liable for a worker’s improper conduct.

Next, the court addressed the church’s contention that it could not be held responsible for the fatal crash because it did not occur on the organization’s property or in one of its vehicles. The appellate court dismissed this argument because no such requirement exists under Kentucky law. The court also disagreed with the church’s claim that the instructions offered to jurors warranted a new trial.

After that, the church argued that the circuit court should have set aside the jury’s verdict awarding damages for loss of consortium to the child’s father under KRS 411.137, or Mandy Jo’s Law, since the man was behind on his child support payments. This Kentucky law was enacted to prohibit a parent who abandons his or her minor child from benefiting financially from the child’s death. According to the appellate court, the circuit court’s finding that the child’s father did not abandon him was supported by substantial evidence.

Finally, the court addressed the church’s claim that certain evidence related to the organization’s conduct following the deadly wreck should not have been admitted at trial. Since the church failed to preserve the issue at the trial level, and the purported error was not palpable, the appellate court held the circuit court did not commit error. After examining a number of other issues raised by the child’s estate, the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court’s decision in the case.

If you have suffered a personal injury or lost a loved one in a Kentucky motor vehicle collision, you should contact a lawyer to help you protect your rights. To schedule a free consultation with a caring attorney, do not hesitate to call English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley, LLP at (270) 781-6500 today or contact us through our website.

Additional Resources:

Big Spring Assembly of God, Inc. v. Stevenson, Ky: Court of Appeals 2014