Liability for Obviously Dangerous Conditions

Court rules church not responsible for injuries sustained on a rain-dampened ramp.

Church Law and Tax 1995-03-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point: A church may not be liable for injuries caused by a condition on its property that is obvious.

A Georgia court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries suffered by a woman who slipped and fell on church property. The woman had taken her daughter up a wooden ramp to the entrance of a church school, and was injured when she slipped and fell on the way down. It was raining at the time of the accident and the ramp was wet. Immediately after she fell the woman told the church’s pastor that “it’s not your fault … it was just raining and I was in a hurry and slipped and fell.” The woman had slipped before on the same ramp, and was aware that it was slippery even under dry conditions. She sued the church as a result of her injuries. A trial court ruled in favor of the church and the woman appealed. A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s ruling. In sensible language that will be of use to churches in similar cases, the court observed:

Everyone knows that any wet surface may be slippery. [The woman] has slipped on the ramp when it was dry. She had knowledge of its danger equal and perhaps superior knowledge to [that of the church], and she fell either because she was hurrying or because she chose to negotiate the ramp despite the danger which was obvious to her.

The mere fact that a dangerous condition exists, whether caused by a building code violation or otherwise, does not impose liability on the [property owner]. For a plaintiff to recover for injury from a fall, two elements must exist: (1) fault on the part of the owner, and (2) ignorance of the danger on the part of the [victim]. The basis of the [property owner’s] liability is his superior knowledge; if [the victim] knows of the hazard, there is no duty to warn her, and no liability for injury because [she] has as much knowledge as the [property owner] and by voluntarily acting despite her knowledge, she assumes risks and dangers incident to the known condition. The evidence shows undisputedly that [the victim] was aware that a hazard existed; if the hazard was such that it could not safely be traversed, she should have exercised ordinary care to avoid it.

It is when the perilous instrumentality is known to the owner … and not known to the person injured that a recovery is permitted. Even where a [land owner] acts negligently, to recover in a slip and fall resulting from a foreign substance, such as water on a ramp, not only must the plaintiff show the [property owner] had knowledge of the foreign substance, but the plaintiff must show she was without knowledge of it. She must exercise ordinary care for her own safety to avoid the effect of the [property owner’s] negligence after it becomes apparent to her or in the exercise of ordinary care she should have learned of it. She must make use of all her senses in a reasonable measure amounting to ordinary care in discovering and avoiding those things that might cause hurt to her.

In other words, adults must take some responsibility for their own actions. According to the Georgia court, persons who choose to use a ramp on church premises that is wet and slippery cannot blame the church for injuries they sustain when they fall as a result of the condition. Patterson v. First Assembly of God, 440 S.E.2d 492 (Ga. App. 1994).

See Also: Premises Liability

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