Key point 10-16.2. Adults who voluntarily expose themselves to a known risk created by a church program or activity generally cannot sue the church if they are injured as a result of that risk.
A New Jersey court ruled that a church was not liable for injuries sustained by a member while engaged in a game of tug of war during a church-sponsored picnic, because the member assumed the risk of injuries that were "common, frequent, expected and inherent in the activity itself."
A church member (the "plaintiff") was injured when he voluntarily engaged in a game of tug of war during a church picnic at a public park. The plaintiff claimed that he sustained injuries as a result of the opposing tug-of-war team pulling and releasing the rope too early, which caused team members to collide. The plaintiff claimed that the church's pastor, who was watching the contest, "changed the rules" of tug of war by telling the teams to pull and let go causing the other team to fall to the ground.
The plaintiff claimed that he suffered serious and permanent injuries including a torn right ACL requiring surgical intervention, as well as injuries to his head, neck, back, as well as to the bones, tissues, and ligaments. This was the second game of tug of war that the plaintiff participated in that day.
The plaintiff insisted that the church was responsible for his injuries on the basis of its negligence in supervising the event. A trial court disagreed and dismissed the case on the ground that the plaintiff had assumed the risk of the harm that caused his injuries.
The plaintiff appealed, claiming that he had a reasonable expectation of how the tug of war game was to be played, and he could not have appreciated the risks associated with altering the rules of the game, as he alleges was done. He also argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment based on the assumption of the risk doctrine. A state appellate court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit:
By voluntarily proceeding to encounter a known or obvious danger, the invitee is deemed to have agreed to accept the risk and to undertake to look out for himself. It is precisely because the invitee assumes the risk of injury from obvious and avoidable dangers that the possessor owes the invitee no duty to take measures to alleviate those dangers… . In the present case, the trial court recognized that the assumption of the risk doctrine arises in cases involving sporting events when the player or spectator knows that an accident or injury may occur and that by playing or watching he voluntarily assumes the risk of injury… .
In the present case the plaintiff voluntarily participated in the tug-of-war game at the church event. He knew the risks associated with the game of tug of war because he played the game twice. A risk which is common in tug of war is falling down amongst your team members. The plaintiff assumed the risk of the tug-of-war game.
The court acknowledged that the plaintiff's wife had testified that she saw the pastor hold his hand to his mouth and tell the other team to "pull it and drop." This testimony the court concluded
does not change the fact that the plaintiff assumed the risks that are inherent in the game of tug of war; falling, and that to establish negligence there must exist a duty. Persons conducting activities have no duty to warn or protect participants against risks which are common, frequent, expected and inherent in the activity itself. No duty was owed to the plaintiff while he was participating in the game. The rules and risks of the game were not altered in a way where the duty to the plaintiff changed at any time.
In support of its ruling, the court referred to a prior case in which a Pennsylvania court addressed the liability of a baseball league for injuries to persons participating in tryouts. Bowser v. Hershey Baseball Assoc., 516 A.2d 61 (Pa. Super. 1986). The Pennsylvania court, in dismissing the victim's lawsuit for monetary damages, noted that the victim had agreed to participate in baseball tryouts, and voluntarily exposed himself to the risks inherent in baseball. The court reasoned that having exposed himself to the risks associated with baseball such as being hit by a batted ball, the victim could not recover from the sponsor of the baseball event for injuries caused by this very risk. The court concluded:
Persons conducting activities have no duty to warn or protect participants against risks which are common, frequent, expected and inherent in the activity itself. Thus, persons conducting the event are not negligent for failing to warn or protect a participant against risk which are inherent in the activity.
What This Means For Churches
This case illustrates that competent adults who voluntarily expose themselves to a known risk have assumed that risk and cannot seek monetary damages for injuries due to that risk. John v. St. Thomas Church, 2017 WL 1049654 (N.J. Super 2017).