Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Injuries to Church Volunteers
A court recently ruled that a volunteer could sue his church.

A New York court ruled that a volunteer who was injured while trimming a tree on church property could sue the church. In response to requests by the pastor (both from the pulpit and in the church bulletin) for volunteers to trim trees on the church property, some 75 men gathered on a Saturday morning. At one point, one of the men was on a ladder cutting off a 30-foot limb with a chain saw. When the limb was cut through, it whipped around and struck the ladder, knocking the man to the ground and injuring him seriously. He sued several of the other volunteers, and the church, claiming that they had been negligent in failing to stabilize the limb adequately, in failing to warn him of the need for safety equipment, and in failing to provide him with adequate safety equipment. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the victim appealed. A state appellate court agreed that the fellow volunteers were not liable: "As fellow volunteers, [they] owed no duty to warn [him] of dangers or to provide him with safety equipment or to devise a safer, better way of performing the task at hand. At most, these volunteers owed each other a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances in the manner in which they performed their task … The fact that the entire plan might have been ill-conceived does not mean that any individual performed his assignment negligently." However, the court ruled that the church should not have been dismissed from the lawsuit: "As a landowner, [the church] owed a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances to prevent foreseeable injury to [the victim]. Here, defendant church, through its pastor, solicited its parishioners to turn out for a work detail to trim trees, a potentially dangerous activity. It is undisputed that in response to [the pastor's] pleas for volunteers, up to 75 men participated in this work detail. The church provided some equipment and a few bottles of 'altar wine' for refreshment. [The pastor] testified that he was present during all the activity, that he definitely wanted this particular limb trimmed …. No safety devices were provided, nor was professional supervision provided. An accident of the kind herein could be found to be foreseeable under such circumstances." Under these facts, the court concluded that the victim had presented enough evidence as to the church's alleged negligence to submit the case to a jury. Lichtenthal v. St. Mary's Church, 561 N.Y.S.2d 134 (N.Y. Sup. 1990).

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Posted: May 1, 1991
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