• Key point: A church may be liable for assaults and abductions that occur in its parking lot.
• The Delaware Supreme Court issued an important opinion on the legal liability of property owners for assaults that occur on their parking lots. While the case did not involve a church, it will be relevant to churches and other religious organizations that maintain parking lots. The facts of the case are quite brief. A female college student (the victim) worked as a summer waitress in a local restaurant. One evening she left work and walked to the far end of the parking lot where her car was parked. A busboy accompanied her part of the way, but returned to the restaurant when they were in the vicinity of the car. The victim entered her car, started the engine, rolled down her window, and waited several seconds for the engine to “warm up” (the car had been experiencing engine problems). As she waited, an assailant reached through the open window, unlocked the door, and forced his way into the car. The assailant punched the victim in the face and drove off while holding her in a “headlock.” He drove to a nearby cornfield, raped her, tied her with jumper cables, and then fled with her car keys. The victim managed to free herself and run to a nearby farmhouse where she called for help. She later sued her employer, claiming that it was responsible for her injuries because of its failure to provide adequate security and lighting in its parking lot. A jury agreed, and awarded her $600,000 in damages. The employer appealed this verdict, and the state supreme court upheld the award. The court noted that other waitresses had complained to the restaurant’s owner about the inadequate lighting in the parking lot. It also noted that 14 minor property crimes (mostly vandalism) had occurred on the parking lot in the 4 years preceding the assault. Under these circumstances, the court concluded that it was appropriate to find the employer responsible for the victim’s injuries on the basis of negligence. It takes very little imagination to see the relevance of this case to churches. Many churches conduct services or activities in the evening. It is common for parishioners to find themselves walking alone to their cars in dimly-lit and deserted parking lots. This case suggests that churches can be legally responsible for assaults that occur under such circumstances, particularly if vandalism or other crime has occurred on the parking lot. What can a church do? First, be sure that the parking lot is adequately illuminated. And second, either provide security guards in the parking lot during and following evening activities, or make “escorts” available upon request to anyone who wishes to be accompanied to his or her car. You may wish to ask your insurance company for additional tips. The point to emphasize is this—churches can be responsible for assaults that occur on their parking lots, and they must take steps to reduce or eliminate this risk. Koutoufaris v. Dick, 604 A.2d 390 (Del. 1992).
See Also: Premises Liability
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