Verdict reversal requested in Fla. suit
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) -- The Florida Baptist Convention has filed two post-trial motions seeking reversal of an "inconsistent" jury verdict in May that found it liable for sexual abuse committed by a former church planting pastor.
While the jury found the convention liable for sexual abuse of a minor committed by the pastor, it also agreed with the convention's contention that the pastor was not its employee.
"You can't make a finding that we're responsible for, in essence, behavior that is associated with someone who's under my employ and then turn around and make a decision factually that the person was never under my employ," E.T. Fernandez III, who is representing the convention, said in a June 7 interview with Florida Baptist Witness.
"Legally, we call that an inconsistent verdict," Fernandez, of Jacksonville, explained.
Fernandez has filed a motion for a new trial and a motion for "judgment notwithstanding the verdict."
Lake County Circuit Judge G. Richard Singletary has scheduled an Aug. 1 hearing to consider the convention's motions, as well as a motion from the plaintiff seeking a final judgment on behalf of his client, Fernandez said.
Although Fernandez is not optimistic the judge will rule favorably on the motions, he said the judge "would have to realize there is a flaw in the verdict." If the post-trial motions fail, Fernandez said the convention would appeal the verdict. Such an appeal, though, would not happen until later because a separate trial to determine possible damages has yet to commence. The previous judge in the case ruled liability and damages had to be tried individually.
After the plaintiff's presentation of its case during the trial, Fernandez said he moved for a directed verdict in favor of the convention on the basis that even before his defense the plaintiff failed to prove its case. The motion was denied.
Fernandez said the verdict attempts to "create new law" with the plaintiff seeking damages from a "bigger organization that would have greater resources than either a local association or the church that might employ a pastor."
After a two-week trial in May, the jury found Lake County Baptist Association and Bay Street Baptist Church at least partially at fault, although each party had previously settled with the plaintiffs, according to Fernandez.
Douglas W. Myers, 63, is serving a seven-year sentence for molesting a 13-year-old boy in 2005 while Myers was pastor of Triangle Community Church in Eustis. He pled guilty in 2007. The boy's mother filed the lawsuit in 2006.
Fernandez told the Witness, "At the time these alleged events occurred, there is no dispute [Myers] was on a mission of his own. He worked for his own church. He was not associated with the local county association. He didn't make requests from the convention for any kind of financial support."
Myers acknowledged he was not the convention's employee, Fernandez said.
The convention did provide a grant to the Lake County Baptist Association for the planting of Harbor Baptist Fellowship in Howey-in-the-Hills in 2002. Both Harbor Baptist and Triangle, both formerly led by Myers, now are defunct.
The argument was that because both churches were listed in the Florida Baptist Convention Annual and among new church plants in Florida Baptist Convention articles in Florida Baptist Witness, the convention was "in some way vouching for the morals and character of this individual," Fernandez said.
The argument is invalid, he said, because there is an explicit statement in the annual that notes persons listed are "solely for information purposes with no endorsement or approval implied or expressed."
Additionally, according to Baptist polity, churches are autonomous, solely responsible for hiring their own pastors in contrast to other denominations, he noted.
Fernandez compared the voluntary relationship churches and pastors have with the Florida Baptist Convention to that of lawyers' required membership in the Florida Bar.
In contrast to Baptist pastors and their relationship to the convention, attorneys are required to be members of the bar, which stipulates its members must attain and maintain certain educational standards, are licensed and can have their license removed. Nevertheless, the Florida Bar cannot be sued if one of its members violates the law.
"These [attorneys] are put in the closest and highest confidence and fiduciary relationships with other people in the state of Florida that equal, if not exceed, as those between a pastor and other members of his congregations," Fernandez said.
The convention conducted criminal, traffic and credit background checks as well as personal references on Myers, all of which came back clear, Fernandez said. But the convention did not call churches where Myers previously served in Maryland and Alabama. After the charges in Lake County became public, people associated with those previous churches came forward saying they had similar concerns.
The son of a minister who served with Myers in Maryland told his father about inappropriate actions by Myers after the Florida charges surfaced. Still, even that minister said he would not have divulged the allegations if he knew about them at the time, according to Fernandez.
"We had no reason to have any suspicions," Fernandez said.
In response to the verdict, Ronald Weil, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Orlando Sentinel, "We're very pleased with the verdict. It clearly shows the Florida Baptist Convention failed to follow a basic standard of care."
The victim, who is now 19, said Myers earned the trust of his grandmother, a devout Baptist, according to the Sentinel.
"He told me it was a normal part of growing up," the young man testified. "He told me he had done it with plenty of other kids at other churches."
Cecil Seagle, a former missions division director of the Florida Baptist Convention, testified, "We did not put him here. We didn't recruit him. We didn't place him," according to a Sentinel report.
"We had nothing in anything we had seen that would suggest a moral impropriety," Seagle testified. "Of course, we are sad about it. It hurts my heart."
At a recent meeting of the State Board of Missions, John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, reported on the jury verdict. He read a prepared statement, explaining he would be unable to answer questions.
Sullivan's prepared statement follows:
"Since 2006 the Florida Baptist Convention has been a defendant to a lawsuit brought by a mother who claimed the Convention was negligent in the hiring of a church planter-pastor who served two mission churches in Lake County. The mission church pastor pleaded guilty in 2007 to molesting the mother's 13-year old son over a six-month period. The pastor was sentenced to seven years in prison.
"Last week a two-week trial concluded in Lake County. The mother alleged the Convention did not do enough to investigate the background of the church planter. The Convention, although it did conduct a background check on the pastor, did not employ the church planter. The Convention only assisted a local church and the Baptist association with funding the mission start-ups.
"After nine days of testimony and arguments by the two legal counsels, the jury returned a verdict that was perplexing. The good news is that the jury found that the church planter/pastor was never an employee of the Florida Baptist Convention. The bad news is that the rest of the verdict was completely inconsistent with the evidence presented.
"There are expected to be a series of post-trial motions, and likely an appeal of some or the entire verdict. So it seems the liability case will be with us for some time.
"Regardless of the outcome of the motions -- or the likely appeal to the appellate courts -- we cannot let this case hinder our efforts to support church planting efforts in our state."
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at GoFBW.com.