Many working parents rely on daycare for their children. In many cases, and for many reasons, working parents will chose a church-operated daycare provider for their childcare needs. But what happens if a child should suffer an accidental injury while at a church-owned or operated daycare? Specifically, does a church-operated daycare center have a special status under state and/or local law that prevents it from being the target of a lawsuit?
On this page, the daycare accident and personal injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm will explain the legal relationship and responsibilities of a daycare operation to its clients (children and their parents). He will then explain why church-operated or church-sponsored daycare centers have no special status under American civil law before closing with suggestions regarding how the parents should proceed if they suspect negligence on the part of a daycare center, or a daycare center employee, may have led to their child’s injury.
Daycare centers have a duty to protect
When a daycare center agrees to care for a child, it is implying that it will take all reasonable steps to prevent that child’s injury. In the context of this article, “reasonable steps” include any actions that a parent would have taken to prevent an injury to their child. As an example, a parent would not take their child to a swimming pool knowing that the child could not swim or a parent would not give a snack to a child with a food allergy without knowing the snack’s ingredients. In both these examples, the responsibilities of the parents and of a daycare center would be identical: reduce (if not eliminate) the possibility that the child could be injured.
In these examples, the daycare center is said to have a “duty” to protect the children under its care from harm. In law, a duty is defined as an obligation to conduct our affairs in such a way as to eliminate (or at least minimize) the possibility that our actions will cause harm to someone else. If we fail in this duty, we are said to have “breached” our duty and a court could find us liable (“responsible”) for an injury.
Under American civil (non-criminal) law, everyone is expected to observe their duty not to cause harm to another. This obligation extends to everyone, from the local fast food restaurant to the multinational corporation that manufactures you annual flu vaccine: if they fail to exercise proper care, they may be found liable for the consequences of any injury that arises from their actions. Although some government agencies or officials may be immune to lawsuits under certain ell-defined situations, this immunity generally applies only to agencies that are funded through tax money or whose salaries are paid from taxes. Note that a church-operated daycare does not meet either of these “tests” and thus enjoys no special status under civil law. The same test holds true for “tax-exempt” or “charitable” organizations (which is the way most church-operated daycare centers are organized): such an organizational structure does not relieve them of their duty to protect a child, or anyone else, from accidental injury.
Sometimes when a child is injured at a church-operated daycare, the daycare will produce a signed “release” where a parent supposedly has “given up” their legal right to file a lawsuit. What the daycare will not tell a parent is that such releases are generally worthless for two reasons.
First of all, the courts have always held that no one, not even a parent acting on behalf of a child, can “sign away” a fundamental or basic civil right. Since access to the courts is a civil right protected by the Constitution, a “release” or a “waiver” will usually be rejected as a defense by a court.
Secondly, negligence (“carelessness”) will usually invalidate a release because such releases would be contrary to the public interest. In simplest terms, this means that if every act of negligence were to go unpunished because of a release, then there would be no reason to act in a safe manner because you would be protected by the release.
In summary, a church-operated daycare center has the same duties and responsibilities as any other business does not enjoy any special protection under our legal system. In the absence of certain narrowly-defined conditions, a church-operated daycare center can be sued if it can be shown that its negligence led to a child’s injury.