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

An Indiana court upheld a jury award of $17 million in a “slip and fall” case.

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 Indiana court upheld a jury award of $17 million in a "slip and fall" case. Our research shows that the most likely reason that churches are sued is for personal injuries resulting from "slips and falls" on church premises or from auto accidents involving church vehicles. While in most cases the amount of monetary damages involved in such cases is modest, there are exceptions, as a recent case in Indiana demonstrates. A surgeon slipped on a puddle of water in a break room in the hospital where he worked, and suffered nerve damage to one of his arms. He sued the hospital, claiming that it was negligent in allowing the puddle to remain on the floor for an unreasonable amount of time. But the real shocker was the jury's verdict—$17 million! A state appeals court upheld this verdict, rejecting the hospital's claim that it was grossly excessive. The court concluded that the accident caused permanent damage to the surgeon's arm (it atrophied and developed a tremor), and the extra burden placed on his "good" arm caused him to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. The end result was that the number of surgeries he performed annually dropped from 250 to just a few. The jury concluded that $17 million was a reasonable figure to compensate the surgeon for the loss of income for the remainder of his life.

. What is the significance of this case to church leaders? It illustrates that seemingly simple accidents on church premises may result in astronomical liability, depending on the nature of the resulting injuries, the victim's job, and the impact of the injuries on the victim's ability to work. This case graphically demonstrates the importance of practicing sound risk management to reduce the risk of slips and falls on church premises. St. Mary's Medical Center v. Loomis, 2002 WL 31974123 (Ind. App. 2003).

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