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Church Liability for Injuries on Property

A Michigan court ruled that a church was not liable for injuries a woman sustained since it was an open and obvious hazard that should have been recognized.

Key point 7-20.1. In most states, whether a church is liable for injuries occurring on its premises will depend on the whether the victim is an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser. Churches, like any property owner, owe the highest degree of care to invitees, a lesser degree of care to licensees, and a very minimal degree of care to trespassers. As a result, it is more likely that churches will be liable for injuries to persons who meet the definition of an "invitee."

* A Michigan court ruled that a church was not liable for injuries a woman sustained when she tripped on an elevated step to exit a pew, since the step was marked with yellow tape and was an open and obvious hazard that should have been recognized. A woman (the "plaintiff") attended a benefit concert at a church. The floor of the pew row in which plaintiff sat was a step higher than the adjoining aisle, and the edge of the step was marked with yellow tape. The plaintiff stepped into the pew without incident, but at the conclusion of the concert, some two hours later, she stood to leave the church. She forgot that a step existed at the end of the pew row, stumbled into the aisle, and sustained injuries. The plaintiff sued the church, claiming that she was an "invitee" while on the church's premises, and that the church failed to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition and to warn of the unsafe condition. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the plaintiff appealed.

Whether a church is liable for injuries occurring on its premises depends in most states on the victim's status as an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser. Churches, like any landowner, owe the highest degree of care to invitees, a lesser degree of care to licensees, and a very minimal degree of care to trespassers. Invitees are persons who are invited to enter onto a landowner's premises, and generally include church members and others who attend scheduled church services and activities. The court noted that a landowner "has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect an invitee from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by a dangerous condition on the land." However, the duty to protect an invitee "does not extend to a condition from which an unreasonable risk of harm cannot be anticipated, or from a condition that is so open and obvious that an invitee could be expected to discover it for himself."

Deciding if a dangerous condition is open and obvious "depends on whether it is reasonable to expect that an average person with ordinary intelligence would have discovered the danger upon casual inspection." The court concluded that "this danger was open and obvious, and presented no special aspects that might make it unreasonably dangerous …. Plaintiff admitted that the step was marked with yellow tape on the day the accident occurred. She contended that the tape had been darkened with wear, but admitted that the tape existed …. The marking on the step was sufficient to render any potential danger posed by the step open and obvious." The court also stressed that the plaintiff admitted that she had stepped into the pew row without incident. The condition was therefore known to plaintiff, and "she could be expected to appreciate the danger of tripping as she approached the step after the concert concluded."

The plaintiff's final argument was that even if the step was an open and obvious condition, "special aspects" made it unreasonably dangerous. The court disagreed, noting that to be unreasonably dangerous "there must be something unusual about the step's character, location, or condition that gives rise to an unreasonable risk of harm." The plaintiff claimed that the lack of adequate lighting made the condition unreasonably dangerous. However, the court noted that despite the level of light the plaintiff was aware of the step, "having traversed it on her way into the pew." Holman v. Church, 2007 WL 292979 (Mich. App. 2007).

Resource. We have developed a series of "checklists" that your church can use to reduce the risk of injuries on your premises or during your activities. You can order them by visiting our online bookstore (ChurchLawandTax.com). Click on the "Risk Management and Safety and Inspection Checklists" heading.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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  • July 1, 2007