Personal Injuries on Church Property and During Church Activities

An Ohio court ruled that a woman could sue a church for injuries she sustained when she “stepped into the dark” and fell down a stairway.

Church Law and Tax2002-07-01

Personal Injuries on Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point 7-20.1. In most states, whether a church is liable for injuries occurring on its premises will depend on the 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."

Premises Liability

* An Ohio court ruled that a woman could sue a church for injuries she sustained when she "stepped into the dark" and fell down a stairway while returning to the main floor from the church balcony. A woman ("Mary") was attending an evening service at a church. She decided to sit in the balcony, which she accessed through a well-lit hallway. During the service, she decided to leave the balcony and descend to the main floor in order to access a restroom. She claimed that there was "no light whatsoever." On her way from the balcony to the restroom, Mary fell, breaking her right leg and left shoulder. She spent three months in the hospital as a result. Mary sued the church, claiming that its negligence had caused her injuries. Specifically, she claimed that while the lights in the hallway were illuminated when she entered the balcony area, they were off when she fell while returning to the main floor. Eyewitness testimony was conflicting as to the illumination of the hallway when Mary fell.

Mary and the church both agreed that she was a "business invitee," and that a property owner owes a business invitee a duty of ordinary care in maintaining the premises in a reasonably safe condition so that its customers are not unnecessarily and unreasonably exposed to danger. However, a property owner "owes no duty to warn invitees of open and obvious dangers on the property. For a business invitee to recover for a fall claimed to have been caused by the condition of the premises, the invitee must allege and prove that the fall was caused by some unreasonably dangerous condition on the premises."

The church asserted that the case should be dismissed on the basis of the "step-in-the-dark" rule. Under this rule, there is an inference that people are responsible for their own injuries when they fail to exercise reasonable prudence and care for their own protection, as in the case of stepping into the dark and falling down a stairway. The court, however, was not willing to apply this rule to Mary because there was evidence that the church was also negligent in allowing the stairway to become darkened at the time Mary was descending. Where evidence exists that both the victim and the property owner are at fault, the step-in-the-dark rule is not applied. The court concluded, "The step-in-the-dark rule merely raises an inference of the lack of prudence and ordinary care on the part of the plaintiff. If conflicting evidence exists as to the intentional nature of the step into the dark, the lighting conditions and degree of darkness, the nature and appearance of the premises, or other circumstances exist tending to disprove a voluntary, deliberate step into unknown darkness, then clearly an inference of contributory negligence does not arise." McGowan v. St. Antoninus Church, 2001 WL 331931 (Ohio App. 2001).

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