By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist church in Alabama asked a federal judge Sept. 9 to dismiss a lawsuit alleging liability for child sex crimes committed by a former minister.
Highland Park Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., filed a motion in U.S. District Court seeking dismissal from a lawsuit filed July 22 by an alleged victim of Jeffery Dale Eddie. Eddie, the church’s former longtime associate pastor for children and church administration, is serving 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to criminal charges in March.
The complaint makes several claims against Eddie but only two against the congregation: negligence in supervision, training and hiring and respondeat superior. The second — Latin for “let the master answer” — is a legal doctrine that holds an employer legally responsible for the wrongful acts of an employee or agent that occur “within the scope” of employment.
While “sympathetic” for the plaintiff identified only by initials J.G., the motion to dismiss argues that the church is not legally responsible. While “horrific” and “depraved,” alleged acts by Eddie were “a gross deviation” from his job duties and done not to further interests of his employer but for “his own sick and twisted personal motives and for his own depraved gratification.”
The lawsuit also alleges negligent supervision, training and hiring, claiming church leaders either knew or should have known about Eddie’s proclivity to abuse children, adding that he would have not had an opportunity to harm the victim without his church position.
The defense motion says case law — including a 1996 Alabama Supreme Court ruling absolving Samford University in the wrongful death of a student murdered by his debate coach in 1989 — holds that an employer cannot be held responsible for acts committed by an employee that could not have been anticipated or foreseen.
The plaintiff has until Sept. 24 to file a response. Both the motion to dismiss and another to postpone discovery are scheduled for hearing at 2 p.m., Oct. 17, at the Hugo L. Black United States Courthouse in Birmingham.
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