Munster church must face wrongful death suit, appeals court affirms

A Munster church failed to persuade the Indiana Court of Appeals that a wrongful death lawsuit against the church, brought after a babysitter died in the home of the church’s pastors, should have been dismissed.

The appeals panel on Tuesday affirmed the Lake Superior Court’s denial of the church’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the mother of Nikki Olds. The Valparaiso University student was found dead in a swimming pool in 2015 while she was babysitting Steve and Melodye Munsey’s granddaughter in their Schererville home.

The Munseys are senior pastors at Family Christian Center, and they had hired Olds to babysit on multiple occasions. Olds was not supervised at the time she died, according to the record.      

In their motion to dismiss, the Munseys argued that Olds was an employee, and that as such, the Worker’s Compensation Act was the exclusive remedy for claims arising from her death. The trial court rejected that argument, as did the COA in this interlocutory appeal, Family Christian World, Inc. d/b/a Family Christian Center, Stephan “Steve” Munsey, Melodye J. Munsey, and Darryl Anthony Smith v. Vicki Olds, 45A04-1709-CT-2091. 

The court noted that in addition to her occasional babysitting for the Munseys, Nikki Olds was a full-time student at Valpo, where she also worked in the dining hall. While she was a member of the congregation at Family Christian Center, the court did not accept the Munseys’ argument that they controlled the details of her work and that she should be considered an employee of the church.

Control of the details of work is one of the 10 factors in a test established in Moberly v. Day, 757 N.E.2d 1007, 1010-11 (Ind. 2001), to distinguish employees from independent contractors. Analyzing the 10 factors, the court found that the babysitting job was not Nikki’s distinct occupation, and that most of the other factors were neutral or weighed in favor of a determination that she was an independent contractor rather than an employee.

“The distinct occupation, length of employment, method of payment, and belief of the parties factors weigh significantly in favor of Nikki’s independent contractor status,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the panel. “In particular, Nikki did not work exclusively for FCC, but was a full-time student and worked in a dining hall; Nikki worked irregular hours over the course of two months and had discretion whether to accept or reject babysitting jobs offered by FCC; FCC paid Nikki by the job; and the parties’ intent that Nikki was an independent contractor is manifested by the fact that Nikki filled out a Form W-9 rather than a Form W-4, and there was no withholding. While a few of the factors lean toward employee status, those factors are less significant and do not outweigh the other factors.

“On this thin record, FCC and the Munseys have not sustained their burden to show that Nikki was an employee. When considered as a whole, the evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that Nikki was an independent contractor. Thus, we hold that the trial did not err when it denied their motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”

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