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Monetary Awards for Injury Lawsuits

A Louisiana court ruled that a $55,000 jury verdict in favor of an elderly woman who fell and broke her hip as a result of a defective floor mat was not unreasonably low.

Key point 7-20.1. In most states, whether a church is liable for injuries occurring on its premises will depend on 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 Louisiana court ruled that a $55,000 jury verdict in favor of an elderly woman who fell and broke her hip as a result of a defective floor mat was not unreasonably low. A 71-year-old church member (the "plaintiff") was attending her church for Sunday services. As she was walking from a Sunday school building to the main sanctuary she stepped through the threshold of the double doors leading out of the school building and placed her foot on a mat located just outside the doorway. She alleged that the heel of her shoe became stuck in a hole in the mat, causing her to fall to the ground. As a result of the fall, she sustained a broken hip and a blow to the head.

The plaintiff sued her church, claiming that its negligence in installing a dangerous mat caused her injury. An expert witness called by the plaintiff to testify on her behalf at the trial considered the mat unreasonably dangerous in normal use because it presented a hazard to people wearing high heels, as is common for women attending church services. He testified that the mat would be more appropriate for industrial use where footwear can be controlled. The expert analyzed the size of the holes in the mat and the plaintiff's shoe and determined that the heel of the shoe wedged perfectly in the hole, causing her fall.

The church's expert testified that the mat was not unreasonably dangerous. He described the mat as a "debris mat," one that automatically cleans particles of grit off the bottom of the shoe and necessarily has holes in it for drainage purposes. He testified that the plaintiff must have stepped through the threshold sideways in order for her heel to fit the shape and direction of the drainage holes in the mat.

The evidence also showed that the mat was a commonly used doormat and had been in place for perhaps as long as twenty years without incident. Nevertheless, at least one church employee viewed the mat as dangerous and had removed it from the doorway more than once. He testified that someone always came behind him and put the mat back where the plaintiff fell.

A trial court determined that the plaintiff was 45% negligent, and the church was 55% negligent. It awarded the plaintiff $55,000 in damages. A state appeals court ruled that the church as 100% negligent, but affirmed the $55,000 verdict. It concluded: "We have reviewed the medical evidence as well as the testimony of the plaintiff as to the effects of her injuries. While the amount of general damages awarded in this case is certainly modest, we do not find the award to be inadequate or an abuse of the [jury's] discretion. Accordingly, we affirm the $55,000.00 general damage award." Mouhot v. Twelfth Street Baptist Church, 949 So.2d 668, 2006-1283 (La. App. 2007).

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