• Can a church be legally responsible for an injury occurring on its premises while being used by an outside group? Yes, concluded an Indiana appeals court in an important ruling. Many churches permit outside organizations to utilize their facilities on a short-term basis. Common examples include scouting organizations, and aerobics and craft classes. In the Indiana case, a Catholic church permitted a local community group to use its facilities for an annual one-day celebration. The event was advertised in the church bulletin, and included a religious ceremony. After the ceremony, guests were ushered into another room for a reception where refreshments were served. While refreshments were being served, volunteers disassembled the tables and chairs in the room where the ceremony occurred. Although the guests were asked to proceed to the reception immediately following the ceremony, a few guests remained behind to socialize. As one of these guests proceeded to the reception area a few minutes later, she tripped and fell over some of the disassembled tables. She later sued the church. The church claimed that it was not responsible for the guest’s injuries since it had not retained any control over its facilities while they were being used by the community group for its celebration. The church also pointed out that the group was permitted to use the facilities without charge, that it was responsible for cleaning up the facilities following its activities, and that the church did not retain any control over the facilities during the celebration. A trial court refused to dismiss the lawsuit against the church, and the church appealed. The appeals court noted that “the church is correct in observing that control of the premises is the basis of premises liability.” However, the court concluded that there was ample evidence of control by the church. It observed:
Thus, the question becomes whether the church retained sufficient control over the festivities to justify imposing liability upon it for injuries to the invited guests. [The priest] testified … that if he chose to do so, he could have decided not to allow the [community group] to hold their function there; that there was a janitor on the premises to make sure the buildings were locked; that the [organization] was not in charge of securing the premises; that the church placed an announcement in the church bulletin regarding when and where the celebration was to take place; that the church conducted a religious ceremony as a part of the celebration; and that he would not say that the church relinquished control over the property. This testimony was enough to create an issue of fact as to whether the church retained control over the premises.
This case illustrates the legal risks that churches face when they allow outside groups to use their property. All too often, a church inadvertently “retains control” over its facilities even when they are being used by an outside group. And, with control comes responsibility. St. Casimer Church v. Frankiewics, 563 N.E.2d 1331 (Ind. App. 1990).
See Also: Premises Liability
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