Can a church be legally responsible for injuries sustained by a volunteer worker who was injured severely while helping to paint a church's fellowship hall? Yes, concluded a Wisconsin appeals court.
The volunteer was painting a steam pipe using a stepladder that was owned by the church and that had been placed on a drop cloth. Following the accident, the victim was taken to a hospital where he was diagnosed as comatose and partially paralyzed, and was placed on a life support system. Several weeks later, he had "regressed to a very primitive, vegetative level."
A lawsuit was brought against the church, and a jury determined that the victim and the church had each been 50 percent negligent, and awarded damages accordingly. The church appealed from this decision, arguing that the evidence had not conclusively established that the victim had fallen from the stepladder, and, even if it had, that the fall was due to a defect in the ladder and drop cloth. On appeal, the state appeals court disagreed with the church: "[E]xpert medical testimony indicated that injuries of the type … sustained could not usually be caused by someone falling on level ground …. Evidence also indicated that the ladder and drop cloth were a substantial factor in causing the fall …. [T]wo experts testified that the ladder [was unsafe] because it was warped and twisted, with bowed treads, loose joints and other defects, with the result that 'the ladder becomes rickety, teetery, when you get on it,' and could move suddenly, surprising someone on it … [and] that 'the front legs slipped and will slide on the drop cloth.'"
Another expert witness testified that "the ladder and drop cloth combination would be a substantial factor in someone falling off." In light of this testimony, the court ruled that the jury had properly concluded that the church was negligent "in the materials it provided to [the victim]." Kluever v. Evanglical Reformed Immanuels Congregation, 422 N.W.2d 874 (Wisc. App. 1988)