Personal Injuries on Church Property and During Church Activities – Part 1

A North Carolina court ruled that a church could be liable for serious injuries suffered by a woman during a church-sponsored “hayride.”

Key point 10-11.A church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries resulting from a failure to exercise adequate supervision of its programs and activities.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability

A North Carolina court ruled that a church could be liable for serious injuries suffered by a woman during a church-sponsored "hayride." In October of 1998 a church conducted its annual Halloween festival on a farm owned by a church member. As part of the festivities, the church organized a hayride. Several children rode through the woods and around the farm on a flatbed trailer pulled by a farm tractor driven by the farmer's son. A woman ("Katie") who was not a member of the church was invited to help with the hayride by standing in the woods and making scary noises. When the last hayride of the night passed by, Katie came out from the woods and started walking alongside the flatbed. While walking, she saw a child near the edge of the trailer, waving his arms and appearing to be losing his balance. She stepped up to the side of the trailer, and as she pushed the child back onto the trailer bed to prevent his fall, she fell under the trailer. She was impaled by part of the trailer, dragged underneath the trailer for a short distance, and finally run over by the trailer, suffering extensive and permanent bodily injuries. Katie sued the church, claiming that it was responsible for her injuries on the basis of negligent supervision. A trial court dismissed the case, and Katie appealed.

premises liability

Katie alleged that the church was liable on the basis of "premises liability" because as an occupier of the farm on the night of the accident it had a legal duty to exercise reasonable care "in the maintenance of the premises for the protection of lawful visitors." The court disagreed, "Even assuming that the church is an occupier of land, the acts alleged to show a lack of reasonable care (i.e. overloading the vehicle and failing to adequately light the trailer) relate not to the maintenance or condition of the property but merely to the way the hayride was conducted. Hazards relating only to an activity and existing separate and apart from the condition or maintenance of property do not give rise to a claim of premises liability."

violation of state law

The state Motor Vehicle Act prohibits the transport of children under twelve years of age in the open bed or cargo area of a vehicle. Katie asserted that the church was liable on the basis of its violation of this law. The court disagreed, noting that the Act "is limited to vehicles driven or moved on any highway." The Act defines highways as "open to the use of the public as a matter of right for the purposes of vehicular traffic." The court concluded that "the trail through the woods over which the tractor and trailer traveled was not a highway," and therefore the church was not liable on the basis of any violation of the Act.


Katie claimed that the church organized the hayride and determined what precautions should be taken for the riders' protection. The church decided whether the lighting on the trailer was adequate and how many passengers were permitted on each ride. The court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing this basis of liability.

negligent supervision

Katie alleged that the church failed to exercise reasonable care in the supervision of the children on the hayride. As proof, she cited the following facts: (1) there was a lot of loud screaming and horsing around; (2) the light illuminating the trailer was insufficient to properly illuminate the entire bed preventing proper visibility and supervision by the adults present; and (3) a child was close enough to the edge of the trailer bed to be within easy reach of one walking alongside of it. The court acknowledged that "where an adult host or supervisor is entrusted with and assumes the responsibility for the welfare of a child, they have a duty to the children to exercise a standard of care that a person of ordinary prudence, charged with similar duties, would exercise under similar circumstances." The amount of care that is required "increases with immaturity, inexperience, and relevant physical limitations." The court concluded that Katie alleged facts indicating that the welfare of the children on the hayride had been entrusted to the supervisors appointed by the church for purposes of safely operating the hayride. Therefore, the trial court erred in dismissing the negligent supervision claim against the church.

immunity of volunteers

The church claimed that Katie's lawsuit should be dismissed on the basis of a state statute granting immunity from liability to uncompensated volunteers who perform services on behalf of a nonprofit organization. The statute provides,

(a) A volunteer who performs services for a charitable organization is not liable in civil damages for any acts or omissions resulting in any injury, death, or loss to person or property arising from the volunteer services rendered if: (1) the volunteer was acting in good faith and the services rendered were reasonable under the circumstances; and (2) the acts or omissions do not amount to gross negligence, wanton conduct, or intentional wrongdoing; (3) the acts or omissions did not occur while the volunteer was operating or responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle. (b) To the extent that any charitable organization or volunteer has liability insurance, that charitable organization or volunteer shall be deemed to have waived the qualified immunity herein to the extent of indemnification by insurance for the negligence by any volunteer.

Katie insisted that the immunity from liability was "waived" by the church because it purchased liability insurance. The court agreed that the immunity conferred by the statute "depends on the absence of liability insurance" carried by the church. The court concluded that since the church had not raised the defense of immunity, the statute "does not act as a bar to recovery."

. This case illustrates two points. First, hayrides may result in death or serious injuries to participants; and second, a church may be liable for such injuries on the basis of negligent supervision of the activity, inadequate lighting, and overloading. Clontz v. St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 578 S.E.2d 654 (N.C. App. 2003).

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