• 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.”
* A Georgia court address the question of a property owner’s liability for injuries occurring to minors who skate or ride bikes on their premises, and concluded that a property owner was not responsible for injuries a child sustained while using a skate ramp on another’s property. The case will be directly relevant to any church that has had neighborhood children use its parking lot for skating or bike riding. An 11-year-old boy (Mark) was invited by a neighbors’ child to skate on an inclined ramp located on the neighbors’ property. The parents were not home at the time the boys were skating and did not know that Mark was using the ramp. After skating up and down the ramp for about fifteen minutes, Mark climbed to the top of the four-foot-high ramp, sat down, and then slid down the ramp on his backside, fracturing his wrist in the process. Mark’s father sued the homeowners, claiming that they negligently maintained a dangerous condition on their premises and negligently failed to properly supervise the child. A trial court dismissed the case, and the father appealed. An appeals court began its opinion by noting that as a “social guest,” Mark occupied the status of a “licensee” at the time of the injury. It observed, “Although a landowner owes a duty to use ordinary care to protect anticipated licensees from dangerous activities being conducted on the premises or from hidden perils, where the alleged negligence arises from a dangerous static condition on the premises, the duty remains not to injure the licensee willfully or wantonly.” Further, this standard applies “even if the licensee is a child who may not be able to appreciate the danger of a particular situation as readily as an adult.”
The court noted that the ramp at the neighbors’ home was “an open and obvious inclined structure sloping to the ground from a height of about four feet,” and that the injury occurred “when the child slid down the ramp.” This was therefore not a case where a licensee was injured “by being within the range of a dangerous act being done on the premises or by coming into contact with a pitfall, mantrap, or other hidden peril on the premises. The ramp was a visible structure that constituted a passive, static condition on the premises.” Since there was no evidence that the neighbors breached their duty not to willfully or wantonly inflict injury, the court concluded that the trial court properly dismissed the lawsuit.
The court also dismissed the father’s negligent supervision claim. It observed, “The [neighbors] were not home at the time of the injury and did not know Mark was using the ramp. There is no evidence that the neighbors undertook any duty to supervise Mark. Under the circumstances, it would normally be the duty of a parent or other adult having primary supervisory control over the child to see to it that a child would not be going into a place of obvious danger.”
Application. Many church leaders have expressed concern about church liability for injuries occurring to minors who skate or ride bikes on church premises. This case suggests that churches are not necessarily responsible for such injuries. Liability in such cases ordinarily must be based on either “premises liability” or negligent supervision. Under the legal doctrine of premises liability, the liability of a church for injuries occurring on its premises depends upon the status of the victim. The court in this case concluded that Mark was a “social guest” and therefore he was a “licensee,” who basically is someone who is privileged to enter or remain on property because of the owner’s express or implied consent. The court concluded that a landowner’s duty toward licensees is limited to (1) protecting them from dangerous activities occurring on its premises; (2) protecting them from “hidden defects”; and (3) in the case of a “dangerous static condition,” such as a skate ramp, to refrain from injuring licensees “willfully or wantonly.” The homeowner in this case did not violate any of these duties, and therefore was not responsible for Mark’s injuries. Note that neighborhood children who skate or ride bikes on church parking lots may be considered trespassers rather than licensees, depending on the circumstances. Churches owe a lower duty of care with respect to trespassers. However, the more frequently that minors use a church parking lot to skate or ride bikes, the more likely they will be considered “licensees” rather than trespassers, since their presence is known and tolerated.
Also note that this case suggests that churches may not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries occurring to children who skate or ride bikes on church premises. As the court observed, the neighbors “were not home at the time of the injury and did not know Mark was using the ramp. There is no evidence that the neighbors undertook any duty to supervise Mark. Under the circumstances, it would normally be the duty of a parent or other adult having primary supervisory control over the child to see to it that a child would not be going into a place of obvious danger.” Rice v. Elliott, 567 S.E.2d 721 (Ga. App. 2002).
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