Church settles lightning-death lawsuit

A Florida Baptist church has settled a lawsuit claiming negligence in the death of an 11-year-old football player injured in a lightning strike that defense lawyers termed an “act of God.”

By Bob Allen

A Southern Baptist mega church in Florida has settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of an 11-year-old boy struck by lightning on a football practice field last year.

jesse watlingtonJesse Watlington, a sixth-grade student at Southwest Christian Academy, died Oct. 7, 2012, after being removed from life support four days after he was struck by lightning at the beginning of football practice. His parents filed a lawsuit in November 2012, claiming negligence by both the school and its sponsor, McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, Fla.

Chuck Watlington, the boy’s father, released a statement announcing the lawsuit was settled for an amount that cannot be disclosed due to a confidentiality agreement. He said proceeds would be donated to various church and Christian groups and used to open a foundation in Jesse’s name.

The settlement came a week before the much-anticipated deposition of Richard Powell, senior pastor of the 10,000-member church affiliated with the Southern Baptist and Florida Baptist conventions. Powell, pastor since 1999, made comments to media immediately after the tragedy that were later contradicted under oath by witnesses who said the school’s lightning detector was still inside a coach’s office and the first adult to reach the boy didn’t know how to perform CPR.

Defense lawyers earlier asked that Powell’s deposition be kept from the public. A defense statement denied wrongdoing by the church or school, saying damages alleged by the parents “were caused by objects, forces and/or intervening acts for which this Defendant had no control, including but not limited to an Act of God.”

In his statement, Chuck Watlington said the family intends to work on changing current laws in Florida to prevent children from being left unattended and unsupervised on school practice fields, and to require all teachers and coaches for private and public schools to be certified in CPR and know how to operate an Automated External Defibrillator.

“And last but not least, we want to work toward the goal of having all schools, playgrounds and sporting practices and events equipped with Early Warning Lightning Detection Equipment, and not only have them, but use them,” he said.