Key point 7-20.1. In most states, whether a church is liable for injuries occurring on its premises will depend on whether the victim is an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser. Churches, like any property owner, owe the highest degree of care to invitees, a lesser degree of care to licensees, and a very minimal degree of care to trespassers. As a result, it is more likely that churches will be liable for injuries to persons who meet the definition of an “invitee.”
A Michigan court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries sustained by a member of its board of trustees when he fell from a ladder while performing volunteer service for the church. A church member (the “plaintiff”) also served as a volunteer on the church’s board of trustees, a group of individuals who volunteered to perform various repairs and maintenance on the church premises. The plaintiff never received or expected any payment or compensation for the work he performed for the church.
Plaintiff volunteered to take down confirmation banners hanging about 20 feet to 25 feet high in the gymnasium of the church’s school. To perform this task, the plaintiff decided to use the church’s extension ladder. The plaintiff, accompanied by the church’s pastor, carried the extension ladder from the garage to the gymnasium. Then, plaintiff, alone, set the extension ladder in place and positioned it on the linoleum gymnasium floor. While working on the extension ladder, without assistance or instruction, the ladder slipped, causing plaintiff to fall approximately 20 feet to the ground, resulting in serious injuries. After the accident, it was discovered that the ladder did not have any antiskid rubber pads on its feet to prevent it from slipping, which plaintiff alleged caused the ladder to fall. The plaintiff admitted that had he looked at the bottom of the ladder before using it, he would have observed that the feet lacked rubber pads and changed his use of the ladder.
The plaintiff filed a negligence action against the church, alleging that the church breached the duty of care owed to him by failing to provide a safe and non-defective ladder for his use, to properly maintain the ladder, and to warn him that the ladder lacked antiskid rubber pads. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit against the church, and the plaintiff appealed.
A state appeals court began its opinion by observing:
In a premises liability action, the duty that a premises owner or occupier owes to a visitor is dependent on the plaintiff’s status at the time of the injury as a trespasser, licensee, or invitee. An invitee is entitled to the highest level of protection under premises liability law. The landowner has a duty of care, not only to warn the invitee of any known dangers, but the additional obligation to also make the premises safe, which requires the landowner to inspect the premises and, depending upon the circumstances, make any necessary repairs or warn of any discovered hazards. On the other hand, a landowner owes a licensee a duty only to warn the licensee of any hidden dangers the owner knows or has reason to know of, if the licensee does not know or have reason to know of the dangers involved. The landowner owes no duty of inspection or affirmative care to make the premises safe for the licensee’s visit.
The court concluded that the plaintiff was a mere licensee to whom the church owed a minimal duty of care, and that the church had not breached this duty:
The imposition of additional expense and effort by the landowner, requiring the landowner to inspect the premises and make them safe for visitors, must be directly tied to the owner’s commercial business interests. It is the owner’s desire to foster a commercial advantage by inviting persons to visit the premises that justifies imposition of a higher duty. In short, we conclude that the prospect of pecuniary gain is a sort of a quid pro quo for the higher duty of care owed to invitees. Thus, we hold that the owner’s reason for inviting persons onto the premises is the primary consideration when determining the visitor’s status: In order to establish invitee status, a plaintiff must show that the premises were held open for a commercial purpose… .
The undisputed reason for inviting plaintiff to the church’s premises was to secure a volunteer to help take down confirmation banners in the gymnasium, and thus … the invitation was for a noncommercial purpose. Although the church clearly benefited from the maintenance work performed by plaintiff as a volunteer, and was relieved of potentially paying for the service plaintiff provided, to gain invitee status there must be a commercial purpose for the particular visitor’s presence on the owner’s premises at the time of his injury. The proper focus … is on the premises owner’s reason for inviting the visitor onto the premises. In this case, the church’s reason for having plaintiff on its property was undisputedly to secure a volunteer to remove the confirmation banners hanging in its gymnasium, which was not directly tied to the church’s commercial interests. We conclude, as a matter of law, that plaintiff was a licensee … at the time of his injury.
The court noted that a landowner owes a licensee a duty only “to warn the licensee of any hidden dangers the owner knows or has reason to know of, if the hidden danger involves an unreasonable risk of harm and the licensee does not know or have reason to know of the hidden danger and the risk involved.” Significantly, the landowner “owes no duty of inspection or affirmative care to make the premises safe for the licensee’s visit,” and has no obligation to take any steps to safeguard licensees from conditions that are open and obvious.” Because of the plaintiff’s status as a licensee, the church “had no obligation to inspect the ladder such that it should have been aware that it lacked antiskid rubber pads on its feet nor did it have an affirmative duty to make sure the premises and its instrumentalities were safe.”
The court also noted that the plaintiff conceded that he would have observed the lack of antiskid pads had he looked at the feet of the ladder and changed his use of the ladder accordingly:
This testimony, as well as the safety warnings affixed to the ladder instructing the user to inspect for damaged or missing parts before each use and to never use a ladder with missing or damaged parts, established that plaintiff had reason to know of the alleged danger, which he admittedly would have discovered had he merely looked at the bottom of the ladder before using it. Also considering the obvious and foreseeable risk that an extension ladder placed on a gymnasium floor might slip and telescope down because of inadequate bracing at its base, we find there is no factual dispute that plaintiff had reason to know of the lack of antiskid rubber pads and the readily apparent risk involved in using the ladder. For these same reasons, the condition of the ladder was open and obvious. An average user with ordinary intelligence would have been able to discover the danger and the risk it presented upon casual inspection. As a matter of law, defendant did not breach its duty to warn plaintiff, a licensee, that the ladder lacked antiskid rubber pads on its feet, and thus, summary disposition of his premises liability claim was proper.
What This Means For Churches:
In many cases, a church’s liability for injuries occurring on its premises will depend on the victim’s status. It is far more likely that a church will be found liable if the victim is an invitee, since a church owes a much greater duty of care to invitees than to either licensees or trespassers. This case makes a strong case for treating persons as mere licensees who are on church property for non-commercial purposes.
Because of the plaintiff’s status as a licensee, the church “had no obligation to inspect the ladder such that it should have been aware that it lacked antiskid rubber pads on its feet nor did it have an affirmative duty to make sure the premises and its instrumentalities were safe.”
The court also noted the cautionary warning labels on the ladder that urged inspection prior to use, and the plaintiff’s own testimony that he would have acted with greater care had he taken a few seconds to inspect the bottom of the ladder and discovered the lack of antiskid pads.
Unfortunately, accidents involving the use of ladders on church premises are a recurring occurrence. Here are some additional points to consider, based on recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:
1. Maintain ladders free of oil, grease, and other slipping hazards.
2. Do not load ladders beyond their maximum intended load nor beyond their manufacturer’s rated capacity.
3. Use ladders only for their designed purpose.
4. Use ladders only on stable and level surfaces unless secured to prevent accidental movement.
5. Do not use ladders on slippery surfaces unless secured or provided with slip-resistant feet to prevent accidental movement.
6. Do not use slip-resistant feet as a substitute for exercising care when placing, lashing, or holding a ladder upon slippery surfaces.
7. Secure ladders placed in areas such as passageways, doorways, or driveways, or where they can be displaced by workplace activities or traffic to prevent accidental movement. Or use a barricade to keep traffic or activity away from the ladder.
8. Keep areas clear around the top and bottom of ladders.
9. Do not move, shift, or extend ladders while in use.
10. Use ladders equipped with nonconductive side rails if the worker or the ladder could contact exposed energized electrical equipment.
11. Face the ladder when moving up or down.
12. Use at least one hand to grasp the ladder when climbing.
13. Do not carry objects or loads that could cause loss of balance and falling.
14. Ladder rungs, cleats, and steps must be parallel, level, and uniformly spaced when the ladder is in position for use.
15. Ladders must not be tied or fastened together to create longer sections unless they are specifically designed for such use.
16. Ladder components must be surfaced to prevent snagging of clothing and injury from punctures or lacerations.
17. Wood ladders must not be coated with any opaque covering except for identification or warning labels, which may be placed only on one face of a side rail.
18. A competent person must inspect ladders for visible defects periodically and after any incident that could affect their safe use.
19. Do not use the top or top step of a stepladder as a step.
20. Do not use cross bracing on the rear section of stepladders for climbing unless the ladders are designed and provided with steps for climbing on both front and rear sections. Metal spreader or locking devices must be provided on stepladders to hold the front and back sections in an open position when ladders are being used.
21. Portable ladders with structural defects—such as broken or missing rungs, cleats, or steps, broken or split rails, corroded components, or other faulty or defective components—must immediately be marked defective or tagged with “Do Not Use” or similar language and withdrawn from service until repaired.
22. Fixed ladders with structural defects—such as broken or missing rungs, cleats, or steps, broken or split rails, or corroded components—must be withdrawn from service until repaired.
23. Defective fixed ladders are considered withdrawn from use when they are immediately tagged with “Do Not Use” or similar language, ormarked in a manner that identifies them as defective, orblocked—such as with a plywood attachment that spans several rungs.
24. Ladder repairs must restore the ladder to a condition meeting its original design criteria before the ladder is returned to use. Meier v. Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church of Monroe Michigan, 2014 WL 5409052 (Mich. App. 2014).