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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Alleged victim of deacon serving two life sentences can move forward with lawsuit against Church of God

State Court

By Marian Johns | Sep 19, 2019

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RICHMOND, Va. (Legal Newsline) – The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled a minor alleging she was a 4-year-old victim of a former church leader convicted of sexual abuse and currently serving two life sentences can move forward with part of her negligence claims against the local church and national Church of God In Christ.

According to the Aug. 15 Supreme Court of Virginia filing, appellant A.H., a minor by her next friends, C.H. and E.H., filed an appeal of Alleghany County Circuit Court's granting the appellees Church of God in Christ and others' demurrers and dismissal of her amended complaint with prejudice. Among the claims in A.H.'s  amended complaint against the church and the abuser's wife are negligence liability and negligent infliction of emotional stress vicarious liability.

"Finding two of her arguments persuasive, we reverse in part and affirm in part," Justice D. Arthur Kelsey wrote.

A.H. alleges that between 2006 and 2010, Don Billups - a church deacon, youth leader and drill team coach - sexually abused her and other minors. Billups was convicted in 2013 of 16 sex crimes against minors and sentenced to two life sentences plus 75 years in prison, according to the Supreme Court of Virginia filing.

"A.H. alleges that Don Billups was an employee or agent of the church defendants," Kelsey wrote. "She is therefore entitled to the rebuttable presumption that he was acting within the scope of his employment when he sexually abused her.

"In sum, we reverse the Circuit Court’s dismissal of A.H.’s claim asserting negligence based upon a special relationship between her and the church defendants. We also reverse the court’s grant of the church defendants’ demurrers to A.H.’s respondeat superior claim."

Kelsey also allowed for A.H.'s recovery of compensatory damages, upheld the Circuit Court's dismissal of her claims for negligent hiring, retention and supervision and the dismissal of claims for punitive damages. The case was remanded back to the Circuit Court. 

Justice Elizabeth McClanahan concurred and dissented in part. She wrote that she agreed that the circuit court properly dismissed claims of negligent hiring, retention, and supervision; negligent infliction of emotional distress; and punitive damages, but disagreed that the plaintiff alleged sufficient facts for negligence based on a special custodial relationship.

"Accordingly, assuming without deciding that a potential duty to protect A.H. arose from a special custodial relationship between A.H. and the church defendants, I would hold that the sexual abuse of A.H. by Billups was not known or reasonably foreseeable by the church defendants as a matter of law," she wrote.

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