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Complications of being "overcome by the spirit of the Lord"

Judith Dadd answered an "altar call" made by the pastor of her Eaton County Mount Hope Church during a leadership rally.  She was "overcome by the spirit of the Lord", fainted, and fell backwards striking her head.  She had apparently been overcome in this manner "over 100 times" during her membership in the church.  The pastor invited members of the congregation to make these altar calls and assured them that if they were "slain in the spirit" and collapsed, ushers were trained to catch them. 

When the church informed Dadd that it would not pay more than $5,000.00 in medical expenses, she filed suit, claiming a head injury and arguing that the Church should have fulfilled the pastor's promise to protect "overcome" parishioners.  Her pastor responded by suggesting she was faking and might be trying to commit insurance fraud (apparently he felt the spirit of the Lord had left her just as abruptly as it had overcome her). 

Dadd amended her lawsuit to include defamation-type claims, citing verbal comments and libelous claims made by the pastor in a letter he sent to the group of 50 parishioners who had agreed to pray for him daily.  Ultimately, the jury sided with Dadd and awarded her $40,000.00 in damages for the fall and $274,000.00 in damages for libel, slander and invasion of privacy. (Apparently jurors felt that the spirit of the Lord had also abandoned the pastor for a time.)  The Appeals Court overturned the latter award, determining that the jury should have been instructed that the pastor enjoyed a "qualified privilege" to discuss Dadd's behavior (and who motivated it) with certain members of the congregation. 

The case was sent back to the trial court for a new trial on the libel and slander charges, although the injury verdict was upheld.  The appellate panel ruled that in inviting altar calls, assuring parishioners they would be protected by ushers in the event of collapse, and in assigning ushers to provide individual direction to responding parishioners, the church assumed a "special relationship" with members and owed them a duty of protection. 

Even though the jury had expressly decided that the pastor acted with "reckless disregard" for the truth, the appellate panel ruled that the latter standard should have been incorporated directly into a qualified immunity instruction regarding defamation-type claims.  The panel reiterated Michigan law that allows a member of a church group or fraternal organization to make slanderous statements to other members, with regard to the group's business, provided the statements are not knowlingly or recklessly false.

There is a Mark Twain short story in here somewhere.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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