LUTZ, Fla. (BP)–A $4.75 million judgment against Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., was vacated by a judge July 19 after he found two jurors concealed relevant information before a trial last fall about a teen injured on a youth ski trip.
In September, Idlewild was held liable for injuries sustained by a youth who participated in a church ski trip in North Carolina in 2003. The youth’s mother brought the suit. The jury awarded $5 million to the family, but found Idlewild 95 percent responsible and the teen’s mother 5 percent responsible, resulting in $4.75 million verdict against the church.
Hillsborough County Circuit Judge James D. Arnold vacated the verdict against the church and ordered a new trial after he found that two jurors, including the jury foreman, “failed to disclose material information about themselves” during “voir dire,” a pre-trial interview of prospective jurors.
Although questioned multiple times about whether he had been involved in prior litigation, the jury foreman did not disclose his involvement in at least six lawsuits, Arnold wrote. Another juror did not disclose two legal actions to which she was party.
Citing several court precedents, Arnold noted in his decision the duty of jurors to “make full and truthful answers” to questions.
“That duty was breached repeatedly in this case,” Arnold wrote. “The integrity of the legal system’s use of impartial jurors is at stake with two jurors concealing current, material, and significant information. Idlewild is entitled to a new trial as a consequence.”
Damian Mallard, the attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Florida Baptist Witness he will appeal Arnold’s ruling and is confident the appellate court will re-instate the verdict against Idlewild.
“We feel that the judge made an erroneous decision,” Mallard said.
John Campbell, an attorney for Idlewild, told the Witness July 21 that the judge’s order of a new trial “puts the case back on the footing it was just before the trial began, everyone starts with a clean slate.”
Campbell said the church’s defense team was informed of the jury foreman’s potential lack of disclosure after the September verdict, which resulted in various post-trial motions by Idlewild, including the one requesting a new trial.
The judge’s order may “significantly improve the chances for an out-of-court settlement,” Campbell said, noting that he is not involved in negotiations, which are being handled by the church’s insurance company.
Ken Whitten, senior pastor of Idlewild, told the Witness some good has come from the adversity of the trial.
“Today we are wiser, closer, safer, and more useful to God’s Kingdom than ever before,” Whitten said. “I would not wish what we’ve gone through upon my enemy, but I also wouldn’t trade the spiritual journey for anything temporal.”
Whitten said the verdict against the church was devastating to him.
“Many emotions went through my heart — shame, anger, questions, disbelief, sadness. We did everything we could to avoid being in a situation where our spiritual family matters were brought before the public in a court of law,” Whitten said.
Whitten said he still grieves for the young man, who sustained spinal and leg injuries, and his family. “I still pray for them and recognize our battles are never flesh and blood,” he said.
Whitten praised the congregation for its support in the midst of the legal dispute. “Even though many questions went unanswered, deep in my heart I knew behind the scenes God was working something bigger for His glory,” he said.
“The story is not finished, and whatever the final outcome through appeals and settlements, I am confident of these three truths I have learned through this ordeal: God is in control of our lives; God is in concert with our lives; God is in conflict with our lives,” Whitten said.
The verdict against Idlewild caused concern among church administrators, according to a January report in Christianity Today.
“It’s a chilling verdict for everyone concerned,” Simeon May, CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration, told CT.
Glenn Wood, pastor of administration at Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., said the verdict against Idlewild demonstrates the need for diligence on the part of ministers and church leaders in supervising youth activities.
“It is also going to require us to do a little due diligence and make sure we have the right kind of [insurance] coverage,” Wood told CT. “There can always be glitches.”
But GuideOne Insurance executive Eric Spacek said churches should be more concerned with routine injuries on church properties.
“We see 10 times as many people being injured in falls on church properties as cases of child sexual abuse,” said Spacek, whose company insures approximately 43,000 congregations, CT reported.
Church law expert Richard Hammer told CT churches need to weigh insurance decisions on the nature and frequency of activities against net value of assets.
“If a church has a youth program that has frequent meetings involving several minors … provides counseling, or hosts community activities,” he said, “then its liability risks are increased, and it should be looking for higher insurance limits.”
James A. Smith Sr. is the executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.gofbw.com), newsjournal for Southern Baptist churches in Florida. This article originally appeared in that publication and is reprinted with permission. The article included an Editor’s Note stating that Idlewild pastor Ken Whitten is a member of the Florida Baptist Witness board of directors, although neither he nor any other director has any role in editorial content of the newspaper.