• Key point 10-18.2. Most courts have refused to hold denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches, either because of first amendment considerations or because the relationship between the denominational agency and affiliated church or minister is too remote to support liability.
A New York court ruled that a denominational agency was not legally responsible for injuries sustained by a woman on a local church’s property, since the agency did not own the property or exercise sufficient control over it. A woman was severely injured when she fell through an allegedly rotted and deteriorated porch on property owned by a local Methodist church. She sued her church and a denominational agency (the “Annual Conference”) to recover damages for her injuries. The Annual Conference asked the court to dismiss it from the lawsuit on the ground that it neither owned the premises where the accident occurred nor was responsible for maintaining them. The woman admitted that the local church was the record title holder of the premises but argued that the Annual Conference exercised sufficient control over the property to impose liability upon it. She relied primarily on The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, which governs the denomination and its affiliated churches, and which specifies that if a church is discontinued or abandoned the property of the church may be assumed by the appropriate Annual Conference and treated as its own property. A trial court concluded that the woman failed to provide any proof that the Annual Conference exercised sufficient control over the property to impose liability, and it dismissed the agency from the lawsuit. The woman appealed.
A state appeals court affirmed the decision of the trial court. It noted that “liability for a dangerous condition on property is predicated upon ownership, occupancy, control or special use of the property.” Where none of these elements is present, “a party cannot be held liable for injuries caused by the dangerous or defective condition.” The court concluded:
Here, it is undisputed that [the local church] was the sole record title owner of the premises where the accident occurred. The fact that [the Annual Conference] may obtain title to the premises upon the abandonment or discontinuance of [the church] is not sufficient to establish a present ownership interest, or authority in defendant to control the property. Significantly, the record reveals that if [the local church] sold the premises the proceeds of the sale would be transferred to the members of [the church], not to [the Annual Conference]. In our view, [the woman’s] evidence … was insufficient to establish that [the Annual Conference] owned, occupied or controlled the church where the accident occurred. Notably, even if [the woman] established that [the Annual Conference] maintained sufficient control over the premises, the record is devoid of any evidence that [it] either created or had actual or constructive notice of the condition of the premises; therefore, no liability may be imposed upon [it].
Application. This case illustrates two important points. First, as a general rule, an organization cannot be legally responsible for injuries that occur on property that it does not own or control. Second, the fact that a church’s property reverts back to a denominational agency in the event of the church’s dissolution does not constitute sufficient “control” over the property by the denominational agency to make it legally responsible for injuries that occur on the property. O’Brien v. Trustees of the Troy Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 684 N.Y.S.2d 328 (Sup. Ct. 1999). Denominational Liability
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