• Key point: Walk-in freezers should be inspected periodically to ensure that they can be opened from the inside. A church can be legally responsible for injuries sustained by persons who are locked in a freezer and who are unable to get out.
• A North Carolina appeals court refused to dismiss a church from a lawsuit brought by a 13-year-old girl who was locked in a walk-in freezer in the church kitchen. Here are the facts of this unfortunate case. An equipment company sold a walk-in freezer to a local Baptist church. The freezer was “field assembled” by the seller on the church’s premises, and it was tested to be sure that it operated properly. The inside of the freezer door contained a label stating: “You are not locked in! The manufacturer of this unit has equipped it with a … latch assembly. You cannot be locked in, even if the door closes behind you and the cylinder is locked. By pushing the inside release on the inside of this unit, you many operate the latch and open the door.” The persons who assembled the freezer tested the door latch assembly to be sure that the freezer could be opened from the inside by pressing a red release button. They concluded that the door worked properly, and could be opened form inside. One evening, some eight months later, a 13-year-old girl (the “victim”) was working as a volunteer at the registration desk to the church’s “family life center” (a gymnasium). Her duties included checking persons in and out of the facility, checking out sports equipment, and answering the telephone. Shortly before 9:00 o’clock that evening, the victim went to the church’s kitchen to get some ice for a soft drink. She was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but no shoes. Once inside the kitchen, the victim heard a noise that she thought came from the freezer. She opened the freezer door and stepped inside. When she did, the freezer door closed behind her. She immediately pushed the red release button on the inside of the door, but the door would not open. She repeatedly attempted to open the door, but her efforts were unsuccessful. She began banging on the door with her hands and feet, pushing on the door with her shoulder, and screaming. After an hour of futile attempts to open the door or attract someone’s attention, she became tired and sat down. She had lost all feeling in her feet which were completely white. Despite being tired, she continued to kick the door feebly. Later that evening, someone discovered the victim in the freezer. By that time, she had suffered severe frostbite to her feet and legs. Paramedics took her to a local hospital where she remained for nearly two months and where she had five operations. During the first operation, all ten of her toes were amputated. During later operations, she received several skin grafts. The victim and her mother filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer, seller, and church. Among other things, the lawsuit alleged that the defendants were negligent in the construction, assembly, and supervision of the freezer. The church asked to be dismissed from the lawsuit, but a trial court disagreed. However, the court did dismiss the seller. The church appealed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss it from the case, and the victim appealed the court’s dismissal of the seller. A state appeals court rejected both contentions, and permitted the lawsuit to proceed against the church but not the seller. This case illustrates the importance of periodic inspections of potentially dangerous equipment and facilities on church premises, to ensure that all safety equipment and devices are working properly. Crews v. W. A. Brown & Son, Inc., 416 S.E.2d 924 (N.C. App. 1992).
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