Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Woman Slips on Icy Church Stairs
Court rules that church can be sued for injuries.
Key point: A church may be responsible for injuries occurring on church premises due to snow accumulation if the snow was either accumulated in an unnatural manner or negligently removed.

An Illinois appeals court ruled that a church could be sued for injuries sustained by a member who fell down snow and ice covered stairs on church premises. The victim went to her church at around 6:30 p.m. on a January evening to practice with her rock band, Romantic Fever, in the church basement. A member of the church board served as the band's manager. The building is reached by a number of wooden stairs. The stairs have a handrail down the middle, but not on the sides. The victim left the church at 10 p.m. following the band rehearsal. As she faced the bottom of the stairs looking down, she could see a mixture of ice and snow on the right side of the steps to a depth of between one-half inch and three inches. Snow had been thrown to the left side of the stairs over the handrail and this side was impassable. The victim proceeded down the stairs and slipped on the first or second step. She fell down the rest of the stairs, injuring her back. She did not know the source of the snow on which she slipped, and did not know who had partially removed the snow from the steps. When asked whether anything about the stairs themselves contributed to her fall, she stated that there was no handrail down the right side and that the steps were warped. The board member noticed snow on the church steps on several occasions during the day of the accident. He discussed the problem with the pastor who was "very perturbed" that the snow was not being cleared within a reasonable time and was not being cleared to his satisfaction. The pastor expected complete snow removal, meaning edge to edge on the steps. Before the accident, the board member had talked with the church custodians (a husband and wife) about this problem and conveyed the minister's feelings about complete snow removal. It was the custodians' duty to remove snow from the stairs. The board member said following the accident that "had the snow removal been taken care of, this wouldn't have occurred." One the custodians stated that she had moved snow on the church stairs from one side to another on the day of the accident, but did not clear it completely. The woman sued the church, and a trial court threw the case out on the basis of the church's motion for summary judgment. The woman appealed, and a state appeals court reversed the trial court's decision and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The court observed that "there is generally no duty to remove natural accumulations of ice and snow" and that "[t]he mere removal of snow leaving a natural ice formation underneath does not constitute negligence." However, a church or other property owner can be legally responsible for injuries in at two situations: (1) snow is removed in a negligent manner, or (2) "an injury occurred as the result of snow or ice produced or accumulated by artificial causes or in an unnatural way, or by the defendant's use of the premises." The court continued:

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Posted: September 1, 1994
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