The Oregonian

May 26, 1999


By Ashbel S. Green - The Oregonian

Summary: Oregon's high court decided recently that employers could be liable if workers molest children

The Oregon House on Tuesday narrowly approved a bill that would overturn a recent Oregon Supreme Court decision making it easier to sue churches, day-care centers and schools when priests or teachers molest children.

House Bill 2985 now heads to the Senate. It was introduced by Rep. Roger Beyer, R-Mollala, in response to an April 8 ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court that revived lawsuits against the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts.

In two separate cases, trial judges had dismissed lawsuits on the grounds that the church and the Scouts organization did not know that employees were molesting children. But the Supreme Court held that employers could be held liable if their employees use their position of trust, which is a job requirement, to molest their victims.

The decision did not judge the facts of the allegations, only whether the now-adult plaintiffs could pursue their suits. Legal experts at the time said the ruling was groundbreaking, significantly expanding the responsibility that employers have for wrongful acts of their employees. The ruling would have the greatest effect on schools, churches, day-care centers and other employers, experts said.

HB2985 was designed to overturn the ruling. It says employers can be held liable for employees' conduct only if employers knew of the conduct or should have known about it.

The bill sparked a long debate. Most Republicans said the bill brought back reasonable lawsuit protections for employers.

Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem, and other Republicans said HB2985 is needed to correct the court's overreaching.

"We have to check their abuse of the system," Mannix said.

But Democrats said the bill was an assault on the rights of abused children to seek redress in the courts.

"Protect our children," said Vicki L. Walker, D-Eugene. "Protect the right of a jury trial."

The bill, which will not affect the two cases in the court ruling, passed 38-22, with four Democrats joining all 34 Republicans.

Earlier, the Republican majority blocked an attempt by Democrats to substitute a bill for HB2985 that would have made it easier for patients to sue health maintenance organizations when patients are denied treatments for which they were insured.

Republicans argued that the substitute bill was a sneak attack that had had no discussion in committee and would drive up the cost of health insurance by increasing litigation.

Democrats said they had no other procedural choice because Republicans would not grant them a hearing. The motion to substitute the HMO bill failed 27-33.

You can reach Tony Green at 221-8202 or by e-mail at