Q&A: Liability for Hired Workers

Can we be liable if someone is injured while mowing church lawn?

Is it possible for our church to become legally liable if we pay someone to mow the church yard and they either injure themselves or someone else?

It certainly is possible for a church to be held liable for the acts of individuals that are hired to do work on its behalf. A hired worker might be considered to be either an employee of the church, or an independent contractor. If the individual is considered to be employed by the church, then the church will generally assume greater responsibility for injuries both to the worker and to other people who are injured in connection with the worker’s activity on your property.

Here are some points for the church to consider:

1. Will the worker will be considered to be an employee? If so, the worker will likely be eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits. It will also be more likely that the church will be held liable for the worker’s actions if a bystander should be injured. In the event that the worker suffered an injury while working at the church, the law will consider several factors in determining whether the individual was an employee or an independent contractor. The presence of a contract between the church and the worker, even if the contract characterizes the worker as an independent contractor, will not necessarily mean that the worker will be found to be an independent contractor. Some of the key criteria that courts look at to decide whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee include whether the individual:

  • Uses his or her own tools
  • Controls his or her own work methods;
  • Sets his or her own hours;
  • Pays his or her own taxes (i.e., is issued a 1099); and
  • Performs the same services for other customers.

From a liability perspective, the church will be better off if it can answer “yes” to each of the above questions.

2. Will the church be held responsible for the worker’s acts if they cause injury or property damage to other people? The analysis on this issue again starts with determining the relationship between the church and the contractor (see the criteria listed in the preceding paragraph). It is less likely that the church will be held legally liable if the individual performing the services is found to truly be an independent contractor rather than an employee. For this reason, it’s important to know the above factors that distinguish an employee from an independent contractor, and, if possible, to clearly create an independent contractor arrangement. The church’s position can further be strengthened by entering into a written agreement with the individual who will be performing the work.

3. How can the church best protect itself? There should be a written contract that your church signs with the contractor setting forth not only the duties to be performed and the compensation for the contractor, but also requirements that the contractor indemnify, defend and hold the church harmless from any injuries or claims arising out of his or her actions. The contract should also include a requirement that the contractor obtain appropriate property and liability insurance (evidenced by a certificate of insurance in which the church is named). Because the wording of the contract between the church and its workers can have a great bearing on the church’s legal liability, it’s important to have all such contracts reviewed by an attorney. Although legal consultation can result in some cost, the benefit is typically well worth it, as much of the organization’s potential liability can be reduced or eliminated through a well-worded service contract.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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