Is Church Partially Responsible for Car Accident Death of Kentucky Teen?

April 23, 2012

Most Kentuckians are familiar with the tragic story of the death of 13-year-old Jamie Mitchell. On June 6, 2009, he was on a camping trip with the youth minister of his church. The youth minister, Derek Coulter, allowed Jamie to drive his SUV. Jamie lost control of the vehicle and crashed. Derek Coulter initially tried to cover up the actual cause of the car accident by telling everyone from police officers to the mourners at Jamie's funeral that he was driving and swerved to avoid hitting a deer. He also said that Jamie was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the car crash, but investigators could find no marks on his body to show that a seatbelt was on him. The truth was finally revealed by the 15-year-old passenger from the accident, who initially was afraid to say anything because Coulter had told them they would both get in trouble.

After the truth came out, Derek Coulter was arrested and charged with reckless homicide and sentenced to five years in prison. Jamie's mother is still shocked and heartbroken about her son's death and the lies Derek Coulter, who is her cousin, told her. "[H]e told me the whole time on the scene he held my son's hand until he let go and I don't even know if that's true" she said.

In the latest chapter of this tragedy, Jamie's parents have filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Coulter and the Big Springs Assembly of God Church in Bloomfield Kentucky, the church that employed Coulter at the time of the accident. Lawyers for both sides of the case have differing views as to whether or not the church could be held responsible for the accident. The attorney for the church claims that the camping trip was not a church-sponsored event, so effectively, Coulter was on his day off when the accident occurred. He also states that the function was not on the church schedule and did not happen on the grounds of the church, but rather on a farm.

Attorneys for the plaintiff have several arguments to counter the church attorney's statements. First, they have witnesses that will state that Coulter let multiple underage, unlicensed teens drive his SUV, both in the parking lot of the church and on the way to church functions. They also feel they can prove the campout was a church event. They state that all 10 children who attended were from the church; Coulter's wife told the kids they couldn't swear because it was a church event; Coulter himself referred to the campout as a church outing during the victim's eulogy; and the farm owner only offered to let Coulter and the kids camp on his property because he was approached through the church about it and was under the impression it was a church event.

If it is proven that the camping trip was a church function, the church may be found at least partially liable because it is possible for employers to be held responsible for their employees' actions if a crime is committed or an accident occurs while the employee is working. The church may also share some of the responsibility if the court determines that it should have known that Coulter's actions may have been dangerous, i.e. letting unlicensed teens drive his truck.

Whatever the outcome, the fact remains that one man had a terrible lapse in judgment that ended the life of a teen, negatively changed his life, and altered the life of the church congregation of which he was a member. While a financial award from a court will not change any of the above facts, it may at least bring some closure to the victim's family and cause the defendants to review their actions and hopefully not repeat whatever mistakes were made to cause this tragedy. If you have additional questions about this case or need legal advice regarding another matter, please contact Kentucky personal injury attorneys Charles Miller or Rheanne Falkner.

Sources:

Fatal crash controversy has fingers pointing at youth minister; wave3.com; Connie Leonard; July 29, 2009

Kentucky church sued over youth minister's deadly mistake; Courier-Journal; Andrew Wolfson; April 22, 2012