Key point: A church can be responsible for injuries that occur on its premises while being used by an outside group, if it maintains "control" over the premises.
Can a charity be legally responsible for an injury occurring on its premises while being used by an outside group? That was the question addressed by a Louisiana court in a recent decision. A charity permitted an outside group to use its facility for a Christmas party. During the party, a woman suffered serious injuries when she fell on a slippery floor. As a result of her injuries the woman underwent surgery for a complete hip replacement. She later sued the charity, claiming that it was responsible for her injuries because it had retained control over the premises during the party. She claimed that the floor was unreasonably slippery, and this dangerous condition caused her to fall. One witness testified, "It was obvious that floor was slippery. It was just waxed or something. I mean it wasn't dirty. It was clean. Probably too clean."
The charity asked the court to dismiss the case, but its request was denied. On appeal, a state appeals court suggested that there was sufficient evidence that the charity retained control over its premises during the party to send the case to a jury. The court began its opinion by acknowledging that a property owner may be legally responsible for injuries that occur on its premises when they are under its custody or control. The court suggested that the charity had retained control over its premises during the Christmas party on the basis of the following factors: (1) the charity was responsible for setting up tables for the party; (2) the charity provided a custodian during the entire party; and (3) the charity was responsible for opening the premises at the beginning of the party and locking the premises at the conclusion of the party. The charity's custodian admitted that he had cleaned the floor prior to the party and that he was on duty and responsible for cleaning the floor during the party.
This case illustrates the legal risks that churches and other charities face when they allow outside groups to use their property. All too often a church inadvertently retains "control" over its facilities even when they are being used by an outside group. And, with control comes responsibility. Aufrichtig v. Progressive Men's Club, 634 So.2d 947 (La. App. 2 Cir. 1994).
See Also: Premises Liability