The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members cannot be held liable for injuries suffered by a child on a church-organized outing in Idaho six years ago, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled.
Justices said there was no special duty of care owed by the defendants to then-13-year-old Heidi Beers of Meridian before she suffered a compound fracture of her ankle while jumping off a bridge into the Payette River.
The justices upheld an earlier ruling by 4th District Court Judge Mike Wetherell concluding the church didn’t have a special relationship with Beers that required it to keep her safe.
If the court were to find otherwise, Justice Joel Horton wrote, such a decision could discourage religious organizations and other groups from planning excursions.
Beers, who belonged to the Autumn Faire Ward in Meridian, Idaho, was hurt in 2007 during a church-organized campout near Smiths Ferry. Her parents sued on her behalf, alleging negligence and the civil tort of child abuse related to the injury.
In addition to rejecting the negligence claim, the justices last Wednesday rejected the child abuse claim on grounds that church members on the trip weren’t under any legal obligation to prevent her injuries.
“The Ward did not have a special relationship with Heidi that would impose upon it a legal duty to prevent her injury on the bridge,” justices wrote in their unanimous 16-page decision, adding that under Idaho law only adults who have the care or custody of a child have a duty “to act in such a way as to protect children from injury or exposure to dangerous conditions.”
The group had planned a carefree two days in central Idaho’s mountains at a historic ferry on the North Fork of the Payette River.
After staying up late and talking, the group separated the next morning. Some went fishing or hiking, while others – Beers among them – went to a Payette River bridge to jump into the cool water.
Court documents say an initially reluctant Beers eventually summoned the courage to jump, but did so in an area that hadn’t been checked for potential obstacles.
“It appears that she jumped directly over one of the bridge support columns,” wrote Horton.
Fortunately, medical care was close by. One church member was a doctor, and an emergency room team from a Boise-based hospital just happened to be floating past.
A phone call by The Associated Press to Mia Murphy, the Beers’ attorney in Boise, wasn’t immediately returned on Monday.