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Punitive damages levied against church in 16-year-old’s drowning

COLUMBIANA, Ala. (BP)–First Baptist Church of Columbiana, Ala., will pay $950,000 to the family of Terry White, a 16-year-old boy who drowned May 31, 2000, while on a missions trip with the church. A Baldwin County jury reached the verdict April 3.

The jury found that the church should be sued for punitive damages in a wrongful death suit issued by White’s parents, Norman and Quilla White.

First Baptist, Columbiana, and other Shelby County churches were on a missions trip to three Baldwin County migrant camps when the accidental drowning occurred. The group stayed at the Lutheran-owned Camp Dixie in Baldwin County.

The Whites claimed that if the church had had a lifeguard on duty at the camp the death would not have happened. The parents sued the church for $2 million, but were granted $950,000.

“I feel that two tragedies have occurred,” said Mike Miller, the church’s pastor. “The first one was a terrible accident May 31, 2000, that rendered a tragic loss of life. The second was on April 3, 2002, when the jury rendered the verdict.

“In a wrongful death suit, there is only one award for damages,” Miller said. “They are considered punitive damages. The jury basically said the church deserved to be punished for a tragic accident.”

White, a member of Providence Baptist Church, a church in Shelby County, had been involved with the youth group at First Baptist and went on the trip to share the gospel with migrant workers.

“Some of the boys were walking in knee-deep water at the camp about 100 yards from the shore,” Miller said. “There’s only one small area in the bay that’s deeper than that where they dredged the place for sand. There was no cry for help, no struggle and no splashing. We think he just slipped into that hole. I don’t think even a lifeguard would have noticed it or helped. The boys just thought he had gone inside or to play.

“It was a tragic, unforeseen, unexplainable accident. No one was at fault,” he said. “You can’t control every circumstance that may occur — with children or adults.”

The rule of law in Alabama, Miller said, is based on what a reasonable church would do in the same circumstances.

He noted that the jury’s decision sets a dangerous precedent for churches in Alabama, and feels blessed because First Baptist has insurance to cover the amount.

Miller said attorneys “whipped up emotion,” and the “fiery emotional atmosphere” had a lot to do with the decision.

“I feel like we’ve been dealt a huge blow,” he said. “I did not expect a jury in Baldwin County to render this kind of verdict.”

Miller said they have no bitterness toward White’s family. “I’m sure they’d rather have their son back than have $950,000,” he said. “This is a tragic time for them, and I don’t blame them. If I were going through the same situation, I’d be searching for answers, too. I know they’re hurting.”

The church, however, has plans to continue its mission to serve God. “We’re going to put this behind us because God has plans for us,” Miller said. “We are in the middle of a strategic planning process, and we will not let a temporary setback get in our way. Satan is trying to put a roadblock in front of us, and we’re not going to let it keep us from continuing to be on mission together for the glory of God.”

Miller also gave advice for other churches: “You can’t let the fear of an unforeseen accident hinder you from doing God’s work and being on mission for Jesus Christ.”

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  • Malinda Hallman McGill