May 8, 2012
Church Held Liable for Youth Minister’s Deadly Decision
A 2009 accident left a 13-year-old boy dead after a youth minister let him drive.
A Kentucky jury found a church liable for the death of a boy killed in 2009 after a youth minister let the boy drive his vehicle, and awarded more than $2 million in damages to the boy's parents.
Derek Coulter was a youth minister at Big Springs Assembly of God in 2009 when he let Jamie Mitchell, 13, drive after a camping trip that included 10 youth group members. Mitchell lost control of the vehicle and was killed in the crash.
Coulter initially lied to police and said he had been driving; a passenger later came forward and said Mitchell had been driving. Coulter was later convicted of reckless homicide and sentenced to five years in prison.
Mitchell’s parents, Rebecca Coleman and James Mitchell, sued Coulter and the church, arguing the church was responsible for Coulter’s misconduct. Their lawyers argued that a church has a “sacred duty” to protect children and that Big Springs failed in that duty.
The church (which left the Assemblies of God and is now known as Open Door Christian Center) argued that it was not liable because the trip was not an official church trip, and it could not have predicted Coulter would let Mitchell drive.
The church will consider an appeal, a lawyer for the church told the Louisville-based Courier-Journal. J. Dale Golden said there were “inconsistencies” in the verdict, adding that the jury ruled Coulter wasn’t acting in his role of employment but the church was still negligent in supervising him.
Last year, Christianity Today reported on a “chilling verdict” in a similar case. A Florida jury awarded a $4.75 million judgment against Tampa-based Idlewild Baptist Church after a 14-year-old-boy was severely injured on a church-sponsored ski trip in 2003. The case prompted churches to reassess their risk management policies. The jury's decision was later overturned.