Key point. A church cannot avoid liability for injuries caused by an "inherently dangerous activity" by hiring an independent contractor to operate or conduct it.
A Missouri court found a charity liable for injuries sustained by an adult while bungee jumping at a charity-sponsored event.
The charity hired an independent contractor to set up and operate a bungee jumping attraction. A 39-year-old male (the "victim") was the first to purchase a bungee jump ticket. He was weighed, and was then required to sign a "release and waiver of liability" form that stated:
The participant is fully aware that bungee jumping . . . is a calculated risk sport and contains inherent risk and dangers (including serious injury or death) that no amount of care, caution, instruction, or expertise can eliminate.”
An employee of the bungee jump company placed a harness around the victim's waist and ankles, and fastened the bungee cord to the harness. The victim and a "jumpmaster" entered the bungee cage which was then lifted by a crane to a height of 170 feet above the ground. The jumpmaster opened the cage door and told the victim that it was "safe to jump."
Unfortunately, no one remembered to attach the bungee cord to the crane. As a result, the victim began freefalling head-first to the ground, oblivious to his precarious position. On the way down, he noticed the end of the bungee cord falling beside him. He was able to reverse his position so that he hit the ground feet first. He survived the fall, but sustained serious and permanent injuries.
The victim sued the bungee jump company and the charity. The jury found both defendants to be responsible for the victim's injuries, and ordered the charity to pay $5 million in damages on the ground that bungee jumping is an "inherently dangerous activity."
A state appeals court upheld the verdict against the charity. The court began its opinion by noting that a landowner owes a duty of "ordinary and reasonable care" to persons it invites onto its property. It acknowledged that an exception to this rule exists when a landowner hires an independent contractor: "A landowner is not vicariously liable for injuries to third parties caused by negligence of the independent contractor or his employees."
Did this mean that the charity was not liable, since the accident was caused by the negligence of an independent contractor (the bungee jump company)? No, concluded the court. It noted that a non-negligent landowner may be liable for the negligence of an independent contractor hired to perform an "inherently dangerous activity." It explained this exception as follows:
[A] landowner who hires an independent contractor to perform an inherently dangerous activity has a nondelegable duty to take special precautions to prevent injury from the activity. The landowner remains liable for the [negligence] of the contractor, simply for commissioning the activity. The liability attaches without any need for showing that the employer is in any respect negligent.
The court concluded that the charity was independently liable for the victim's injuries on the basis of this rule.
What this means for churches
Many churches have engaged in inherently dangerous activities as a way to amuse adolescents, and in some cases adults. Bungee jumping is an obvious example of such an activity.
This case is important because it illustrates that a church cannot avoid liability associated with an inherently dangerous activity by hiring an independent contractor to operate or conduct it. There is one other aspect of this case that should be noted. The court ignored the "release form" that the victim signed prior to his injury. It observed, "one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional torts or for gross negligence, or for activities involving the public interest." Hatch v. V.P. Fair Foundation, Inc., 990 S.W.2d 126 (Mo. App. 1999). [Premises Liability]
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