Personal Injuries on Church Property and During Church Activities

Key point 7-20.1. In most states, whether a church is liable for injuries occurring on

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 church was not responsible for injuries sustained by a woman who slipped on a wet floor and broke her leg while attending a wedding reception on church property since the wet condition was an obvious risk. A woman (the 'victim') was seated with friends and family at a wedding reception in a church. While on her way to the restroom, she stepped in some liquid, slipped and fell. She did not see the liquid on the floor, but three witnesses did see it. No one saw an actual spill occur or any cup or ice discarded on the floor, but the area was wet from the spilling of beverages being carried from the serving area and had been wet for most of the evening. One witness claimed that she had seen liquid on the floor for 45 minutes to an hour before the victim slipped. However, no one suggested prior to the victim's fall that the wet condition was a hazard, or expressed any apprehension about passing through the area.

None of the witnesses informed anyone from the church of the wet condition, nor did they warn the victim of the wet floor when she set off for the restroom although they were aware of the condition. The victim claimed that she had not been looking where she was walking, but had been focused on the restroom. Therefore, she did not know what liquid she had slipped in, the size of the puddle, the exact location, how long it had been there, or if anyone from the church had been aware of it. In fact, she only believed it to be liquid because her dress was wet after the fall.

The victim sued the church, claiming that it was responsible for her injuries on the basis of negligence. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the victim appealed. A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that the victim was a 'business invitee' since she was on church premises by the implied invitation of the church. In general, a landowner 'owes a duty to an invitee to use ordinary care for the invitee's safety, and to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition (and to use ordinary care to provide notice of any concealed dangers of which the owner of the premises has knowledge, or which by using ordinary care should have been discovered).' However, 'an owner is under no duty to protect its customers from dangers known to the customer, or otherwise so obvious and apparent that a customer should reasonably be expected to discover them and protect herself from them.'

The rationale behind this 'open and obvious doctrine' is that 'the open and obvious nature of the hazard itself serves as a warning, and allows the owner to expect visitors to discover the danger and take appropriate actions to protect themselves.' The presence of wet floors 'is a frequently encountered condition that a reasonable person would be expected to recognize and exercise caution to protect herself from.' The court concluded, 'Although the room was darkened, the other [witnesses] spotted the liquid. The victim … conceded that her view was not obstructed and she merely failed to look where she was walking. Thus, she is alone among her witnesses in failing to observe this wet condition, and by her own admission, this was due to her own inattentiveness. Simply put, the fact that she stepped in an obviously wet spot because she was not looking makes it irrelevant whether the liquid had been on the floor for 45 minutes or 45 seconds, she would have slipped and fallen either way ….The open and obvious nature of the liquid obviates a duty.'

. In many cases, a church's liability for injuries occurring on its premises will depend on the victim's status. It is more likely that a church will be found liable if the victim is an invitee, since a church owes a much greater duty of care to invitees than to either licensees or trespassers. However, this case demonstrates that churches generally will not be liable for injuries to invitees resulting from hazards that are 'open and obvious.' Andamasaris v. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 2005 WL 313691 (Ohio App. 2005).

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