Key Point 7-20.2. A variety of defenses are available to a church that is sued as a result of an injury occurring on its premises.
A Washington court ruled that a church was not legally responsible for the death of a three-year-old child who was run over and killed by a vehicle that was pulling into a church parking lot. A church had a small parking lot with one row of angled parking spaces separated from the church building by a driveway. On the day of the accident, a mother was dropping her young children off at vacation bible school. She pulled into one of the angled parking spaces. She let her older children get out first and then helped her three-year old son (the “victim”) out of his car seat and onto the asphalt parking lot next to the driver side of her vehicle.
At the same time, a van driven by another woman entered the parking lot and came to a screeching halt to let the victim’s older siblings cross the driveway and enter the church. The victim’s mother, concerned by the noise of screeching breaks, left the victim next to her vehicle and went to check on her other children. After watching them safely cross the driveway and enter the church, she returned to the victim and discovered that he had moved approximately 15 to 20 feet away from her vehicle. Meanwhile, the van driver proceeded to drive toward the victim. The victim’s mother recognized the danger her son was in, and tried to catch up with him. As she ran toward him she saw him enter one of the vacant parking spaces just as the van driver pulled into the same space. The van struck and fatally injured the victim.
The victim’s parents sued the church, alleging that its negligence caused their son’s death. Specifically, they claimed that the church had been negligent in the following respects:
- The parking spaces in the church parking lot were two feet shorter than the length prescribed by the city zoning ordinance.
- The parking lot was too narrow to allow both angled parking and two-way traffic.
- The church failed to post speed limit signs in the parking lot limiting the speed to a safe five miles per hour.
- The parking lot lacked speed bumps.
- The parking lot lacked a crosswalk.
The court concluded that the victim’s tragic death was not attributable to any negligence on the part of the church. It noted that a plaintiff in a negligence case must prove that “but for the defendant’s negligence, the injury would not have occurred,” or “put another way, there must be a direct link between the ways in which the defendant was negligent and the manner in which the plaintiff was injured.” This standard was not met, the court concluded:
There is no evidence that two-way traffic or parking space depth had anything to do with the van hitting [the victim] …. Perhaps, had the victim been trapped in the parking space with nowhere else to go, the depth of the space might have mattered, but no one was parked on either side of the space into which [the van] pulled. The experts also stated that the church should have used traffic devices like signs, speed bumps, and a crosswalk to raise drivers’ awareness and alert them to the dangers of hitting children in the area. But the evidence shows that [the van driver] braked to avoid hitting the [victim’s older siblings]. She came to a full stop even without a crosswalk. One wonders what sign would do a better job of alerting drivers to the presence of children than being forced to brake suddenly to avoid hitting two children. There is no evidence to suggest these measures would have prevented [the accident] ….
An accident reconstruction engineer testified at his deposition that the faded stripes designating parking spaces were too faint for the victim to see, thereby leading him to believe that it was a safe walking area. He further testified that, had the area been properly marked, the victim would have walked a different way and would have been more visible to [the van driver]. But the idea that clearly marked white lines would have somehow prevented a young child from walking into the space where [the van driver] hit him or made him more visible to her is pure speculation. [the engineer] did not provide any factual support for his assertion that had the area been better marked the accident would not have occurred.
Similarly, the court rejected the parents’ claims that the lack of a speed limit sign, and speed bumps, amounted to negligence: “Nothing suggests that a five mile per hour speed limit sign or any other slowing device would either have resulted in [the van driver] driving only five miles per hour or ensured that the victim … went in a direction that would have lead him to safety. In fact, nothing explains why the victim was incapable of getting out of the way or speeding up or why he chose to walk into the very same empty parking spot that the van driver chose to pull into when there was no one parked on either side of that spot. These were very unfortunate accidents of fate and not directly attributable to the church’s failure to establish a five mile per hour speed limit.”
Application. An accident such as this could happen in the parking lots of most churches. While a church may not be liable for an accident that would have occurred regardless of the care it exercised, this does not mean that churches do not need to take affirmative steps to make their parking lots safe, for a church is potentially liable for parking lot accidents that would not have occurred but for its failure to implement appropriate safety measures.
What safety measures should a church consider? First and foremost, church leaders should check with their local zoning agency to ensure that all of the requirements of the zoning ordinance are being met. These may include speed limit signs, speed bumps, crosswalks, sizing, and adequate lighting. Another good idea is to check with your public school district, and other youth-serving charities, to see what measures they have instituted to make their parking lots safe. Yi v. Kim, 2008 WL 115814 (Wash. App. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, September/October 2009.