• Key point: Whether a church is legally responsible for injuries occurring on its property depends in many states upon the status of the person who is injured.
• The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries sustained by a visiting choir member who slipped and fell on church premises. A church choir was asked to participate in the anniversary celebration of another church. Upon arrival at the church, the choir members participated in a buffet lunch that was presented as part of the anniversary activities. One of the choir members slipped and fell after eating lunch. She and her husband sued the church, alleging that its negligence and “wantonness” caused her injuries. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the choir member appealed. The state supreme court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It based its decision on the status of the choir member while present as a guest on the other church’s property. It observed that “[t]his court looks to the status of the injured party in relation to the defendant’s land or premises in deciding whether the defendant should be held liable for an injury to a visitor upon the land or premises.” Specifically, a court must determine whether an accident victim is an “invitee,” a “licensee,” or a trespasser, since a landowner’s duty of care differs with respect to teach of these classifications. The court observed:
A person who enters the land with the landowner’s consent to bestow some material or commercial benefit upon the landowner is deemed an invitee. A landowner owes an invitee the duty to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and, if the premises are unsafe, to warn of hidden defects and dangers that are known to the landowner but that are hidden or unknown to the invitee ….
In contrast, a person who visits a landowner’s property with the landowner’s consent or as the landowner’s guest but with no business purpose occupies the status of a licensee …. The duty owned by a landowner to a licensee is to abstain from willfully or wantonly injuring the licensee and to avoid negligently injuring the licensee after the landowner discovers a danger to the licensee. This duty is not an active one to safely maintain the premises; instead, the landowner has the duty not to set traps or pitfalls and not to willfully or wantonly injure the licensee. A “trap” is a danger that the person who does not know the premises could not avoid by the use of reasonable care. Wantonness has been defined as the conscious doing of some act or conscious omission of some duty by one who has knowledge of the existing conditions and who is conscious that doing, or failing to do, some act will probably result in injury.
The court concluded that a person attending a church service is a licensee while on the church premises, and not an invitee. It noted that a choir member visiting another church to participate in a special service is not an invitee since the person’s presence does not provide a “material benefit” to the other church. It further observed that special church services are common, and that guests who participate in such services are “in much the same position as social guests enjoying unrecompensed hospitality in a private home by invitation.” As such, they are licensees. The court concluded that the church did not breach any duty it owed to the choir member as a licensee, since it did not willfully or wantonly injure her, and it was not aware of any condition of the floor that would cause an injury. Hambright v. First Baptist Church, 638 So.2d 865 (Ala. 1994)
See Also: Premises Liability
• In a second case, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a member of choral group that practiced in a church was a licensee and could not sue the church for injuries she sustained when she fell on church property. A statewide choral group conducted rehearsals in a Presbyterian church. During a rehearsal a member of the group slipped and fell on some risers in the church’s choir room. She sued the church, claiming that her injuries were caused by the church’s negligence. A trial court dismissed the case, and the woman appealed. The state supreme court upheld the dismissal of the case. The court observed:
A person who enters land with the landowner’s consent to bestow some material or commercial benefit upon the landowner holds the legal status of an invitee; a person who enters the land with the landowner’s consent or as the landowner’s guest but without a business purpose holds the legal status of a licensee. A landowner owes an invitee a duty to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and, if the premises are unsafe, to warn the invitee of defects and dangers that are known to the landowner but unknown to the invitee; a landowner owes a licensee a duty to abstain from willfully or wantonly injuring the licensee and to avoid negligently injuring the licensee after the landowner discovers a danger to the licensee.
The court concluded that the woman who fell was a licensee, and that the church was not liable for her injuries because it did not willfully or wantonly cause her injuries, nor did it act negligently. The court concluded that “a person attending a church service is a licensee on the church premises.” It referred to earlier Alabama cases finding that (1) a person attending an ordination service of a family member on church premises was a licensee, even though she had been asked to bring cookies and was injured while delivering them, since the benefit to the church was not material enough for her to be an invitee; (2) a basketball player in an industrial league that played games in a church gymnasium without charge was a licensee. Prentiss v. Evergreen Presbyterian Church, 644 So.2d 475 (Ala. 1994).
See Also: Premises Liability
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