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Estates May Sue Ministry For Wrongful Death Damages

Estates May Sue Ministry For Wrongful Death Damages

Court says complaint alleges facts that could show negligence after accepting duty to protect employee’s family

An appellate court in Illinois has allowed the estates of an employee’s wife and two children to sue a nonprofit ministry for negligently failing to protect them from being murdered by the ministry’s employee.  In rejecting the ministry’s motion to dismiss the Complaint, the Court said that the estate had alleged sufficient facts to sustain a claim that the ministry had voluntarily undertaken to protect the family but had negligently failed to perform its duties.  (Regions Bank v. Joyce Meyer Ministries, App. Ct., IL, Fifth Dist., No. 5-13-0193, 8/12/14.)

Christopher Coleman was an employee of Joyce Meyer Ministries when he murdered his wife and two children in their home, for which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.  A bank, as an independent administrator of the family members’ estates, sued the ministry for negligence after undertaking a duty to protect them from harm and for negligent retention of its employee.  A trial court dismissed both claims.  The appellate court has reinstated the negligent protection claim, but agreed that there was no basis for the negligent retention claim.

The Complaint alleged that Coleman was a high-level security employee of the Ministries; that the Ministries had an electronic communications policy prohibiting employees from sending or viewing inappropriate, obscene, harassing or abusive images, language or materials on any of its electronic equipment; and that it had the right to monitor usage and impose discipline upon employees who violated the policy.  It also claimed that the Ministries was aware of death threats (that Coleman made both to himself and his family with the organization’s computers), and voluntarily undertook to investigate the source of the threats, provide security to the family’s residence, and report to law enforcement officials.  The Complaint then alleged that the Ministries failed to perform or negligently performed these undertakings.

Ordinarily, a person has no obligation to protect another from the criminal acts of a third party, but there are a few exceptions to the rule, the Court said.  One of the exceptions is when the person voluntarily undertakes to protect the party harmed but negligently fails to perform that undertaking and the negligence increases the risk or the other party suffered harm due to his or her reliance on the undertaking.

Accepting the factual allegations as true, as it must on a motion to dismiss, and construing the facts and the reasonable inferences therefrom “in the light most favorable to the plaintiff,” the Court found that they were sufficient to establish a duty of care to the family under the voluntary-undertaking theory.

The Court said it was reasonable to infer that the Ministries increased the risk of harm to the family by failing to conduct an adequate investigation of its own communications systems and equipment, “essentially electing to remain ignorant of facts concerning the source of the threats, when a reasonable person may have conducted an internal investigation of its systems and equipment.  It may also be reasonable to infer that [Coleman’s wife] did not have an equal and independent means to investigate the threats, and that [she], relying on [the Ministries] promises to investigate the threats and to provide security, did not take steps to protect herself and her children from the threatened harm.”

The Court dismissed the negligent retention claim because there were not sufficient allegations to establish that Coleman’s misuse of his position was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm to the family.


The Court took pains to state that it was deciding a procedural issue only, that the plaintiffs will have to prove their facts, that the finder of fact will have to decide whether the employer breached a duty that it voluntarily undertook to provide to the family and if so, whether the breach was a proximate cause of the harm.   It is still a long way to go for the family representatives, but nevertheless a sobering case for employers generally.

App. Ct Il

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