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 California court ruled that a church was not responsible on the basis of either "premises liability" or negligent supervision for injuries suffered by a volunteer worker who fell while on a ladder repainting the church.
A church building needed repainting. A church member ("Jerry") had been self-employed doing maintenance and repair work for many years, and had done previous maintenance work at the church on a volunteer basis. Because of Jerry's experience, the pastor asked him to repaint the building as an unpaid volunteer. Jerry agreed, but told the pastor that the building must first be sandblasted to remove the old paint. The pastor agreed to supply a sandblaster. Jerry, who had used a sandblaster more than 50 times in the past, asked the pastor to supply scaffolding for him to use while sandblasting. The pastor said the church could not afford scaffolding, but offered to provide a ladder instead. Jerry had never sandblasted from a ladder before, but knew other people safely did so, and agreed. Jerry informed the pastor that he would need assistants, including someone to hold the ladder, and asked the pastor for permission to hire the men who usually worked with him. The pastor again responded by saying that the church did not have the funds to pay for these workers, and said that he would ask fellow church members to help out. Jerry agreed to this arrangement. A short time later, Jerry showed up at the church to perform the sandblasting. The church supplied a sandblaster, ladder, and three workers. One worker put the sand in the sandblaster. The others were to hold the ladder. While Jerry was sandblasting the church building from atop the ladder, the pressure from the sandblaster moved the ladder away from the building and he fell, sustaining injuries. He assumed that the ladder fell because the two workers had let go of it.
Jerry sued his church claiming that it was liable for his injuries on two grounds: (1) "premises liability" (the church, as the owner of the premises, was liable for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on its property, and allowing unskilled workers to assist Jerry constituted a dangerous condition); and (2) negligent supervision. The trial court dismissed the case, concluding that there was no evidence that the church controlled the work and there was therefore no duty owed to Jerry to provide a safe worksite. The case was appealed.
The appeals court concluded that the church could not be liable for Jerry's injuries on the basis of premises liability since it was Jerry, and not the church, that maintained control over the sandblasting operation. The court concluded,
It is undisputed that Jerry was an experienced sandblaster. It does not appear that the pastor even knew sandblasting was required. The pastor was not at the jobsite. Jerry admitted he was the only person at the jobsite who gave direction to [the two volunteers who were holding the ladder]. While Jerry may have believed he was not supervising the work of [the two volunteers], there is no dispute that he, and no one else, gave direction to [the volunteers] at the jobsite. Jerry, and no one else, told [them] to hold the ladder so he would not fall …. The pastor and Jerry agreed the work would be done with a church-provided sandblaster, on a church-provided ladder, with church-provided volunteer assistants. Jerry agreed to perform the work under those conditions and directed the assistants as he felt necessary at the worksite. The evidence is undisputed that the church did not control [the volunteers] at the worksite; Jerry did. Therefore, he cannot pursue a claim against the church for [premises liability] based on [the volunteers'] conduct at the worksite.
Jerry alleged that the church was liable for his injuries on the basis of negligent supervision because it knew or should have known that the volunteers who held the ladder had poor judgment and would act with reckless disregard for his safety, and failed to sufficiently investigate the volunteers before assigning them to the work. The court rejected this basis of liability, noting that "holding a ladder is unskilled work" and that Jerry produced no evidence showing that the volunteers "were somehow incapable of properly holding the ladder." Further, Jerry admitted that the volunteers had held the ladder correctly for a significant length of time prior to the accident. The mere fact that Jerry fell "is not sufficient to show that the volunteers let go of the ladder because they were somehow incapable of the job and the church should have known it." Amarra v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, 2003 WL 254023 (Cal. App. 2003).