Injuries on Church Property During Use by Outside Groups

When is a church subject to liability?

Miller v. Catholic Bishop, (Wash. App. 2004).

Background. A church leased part of its premises to a Head Start program from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each weekday. One day, while Head Start was using the property, one of its employees (Anne) was injured when she stood on one of the school’s child-size chairs, climbed onto the kitchen stove and then onto an adjacent refrigerator, and then onto a microwave oven on top of the refrigerator into a loft. She fell through an opening in the loft while reaching for a box.

Anne sued the church for damages based on a number of legal theories, all of which were based on her basic assertion that the church had an obligation to protect her from the hazard posed by the loft. She argued that the opening to the loft should have been fitted with a protective rail. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Anne appealed.

The court’s ruling. A state appeals court noted that the legal relationship between the church and Head Start was a “license” rather than a lease. It defined a license as “a privilege to enter property without possessing any interest in it,” whereas a lease “conveys exclusive possession” of property. While the parties called their relationship a “lease,” this was not determinative since “a landowner’s duty is created not by the label, but by the legal relationship created by the agreement.” The lease agreement in this case did not create a lease since it “did not grant exclusive use of these premises” but rather allowed Head Start to have access only during certain days and times.

In most states, a landowner is subject to liability for physical harm caused to licensees by a condition on its property only if

(a) the owner knows or has reason to know of the condition and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such licensees, and should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, and (b) the owner fails to exercise reasonable care to make the condition safe, or to warn the licensees of the condition and the risk involved, and (c) the licensees do not know or have reason to know of the condition and the risk involved.

The landowner “is not required to make the property safe for the licensee or to affirmatively seek out and discover hidden dangers.” The duty is simply one of reasonable care, where there is a known dangerous condition on the property which the licensee cannot reasonably be expected to discover. If the danger is not readily discoverable, the landowner has a duty either to make the condition safe or to warn the licensee of the condition and its inherent risks.

The court concluded, “Here, there was no dangerous condition known to the church that was not equally obvious to Head Start and [Anne]. The church had no duty to inspect rafters, attics, and lofts inaccessible in the course of the anticipated use of the property and not within the scope of the license.”

The court also rejected Anne’s argument that the church violated a general duty of exercising “reasonable care” in the maintenance of its property. It noted that even if such a duty existed, it was not violated since “an attic with no stair, handhold, or handrail is an open and obvious danger. The landowner should not expect that a person will climb over stoves, countertops, refrigerators, and microwaves to access this area.”

Relevance to church treasurers. This case is instructive for the following reasons.

First, many churches allow groups to use their premises. In most cases, the group does not have exclusive use of church property but instead has use of the property for very limited periods of time (weekdays, between certain hours, etc.). Such a relationship, the court concluded, is not a “lease” even if it is so called in a written agreement between the parties. Rather, it is a license, which confers upon the licensee the very limited legal privilege of nonexclusive use of the property under specified conditions.

Second, in many states a landowner has a very limited duty with respect to licensees. It is “not required to make the property safe for the licensee or to affirmatively seek out and discover hidden dangers,” but rather “where there is a known dangerous condition on the property which the licensee cannot reasonably be expected to discover … the landowner has a duty either to make the condition safe or to warn the licensee of the condition and its inherent risks.”

Third, a church’s duty to licensees is limited, but it is enough to support liability in some cases. For this reason it is important for church leaders to consult with their insurance agent to confirm that injuries occurring during a licensee’s use of church property will be covered under the church’s liability policy. And, the church should require licensees to sign a license agreement that (1) characterizes the arrangement as a license; (2) disclaims any duty on the part of the church to supervise the premises during the licensee’s occupancy; (3) requires the licensee to indemnify and “hold the church harmless” in the event of an injury; and (4) requires the licensee to list the church as a named insured in its liability insurance policy with coverage limits acceptable to the church.

This article first appeared in Church Treasurer Alert, November 2005.

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

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