Wednesday, April 15, 2015

California Appeals Court: No Duty To Warn Congregants of Child Molester

In Conti v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc., (CA App., April 13, 2015), a California state appeals court held that elders of a Jehovah's Witness congregation had no duty to warn the congregation in general, or parents, that another member of the congregation had previously molested a child.  In the case, Candace Conti who as a child was subsequently molested by the same fellow Church member (Jonathan Kendrick), sued the Congregation and its national Church body. The court concluded that a duty to warn arises only where there is a special relationship with the injured party:
While it is readily foreseeable that someone who has molested a child may do so again, the burden the duty to warn would create and the adverse social consequences the duty would produce outweigh its imposition. The burden would be considerable because the precedent could require a church to intervene whenever it has reason to believe that a congregation member is capable of doing harm, and the scope of that duty could not be limited with any precision..... Child molestation is a particularly heinous evil, but which other potential harms would the church have a duty to avert?... Imposition of a duty to warn would also have detrimental social consequences. It would discourage wrongdoers from seeking potentially beneficial intervention, and contravene the public policy against disclosure of penitential communications....
However the court upheld the jury's finding that the Church was negligent in failing to prevent Kendrick from performing church-sponsored field service-- door-to-door preaching-- alone with a minor. That gave Kendrick particular opportunity to molest Conti.

Based on these conclusions, the appeals court, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, reversed the $8.6 million punitive damage award against the national Watchtower Society, but affirmed damages for negligence awarded against the defendants for $2.8 million.