• Key point 6-08. State and federal laws provide limited immunity to uncompensated officers and directors of churches and other charities. This means that they cannot be personally liable for their ordinary negligence. However, such laws contain some exceptions. For example, officers and directors may be personally liable for their gross negligence or their willful or wanton misconduct. Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees
A Louisiana court ruled that a church usher and her church were not liable for injuries sustained by a church member who fell while praying “in the Spirit.” A woman (“Ruth”) served as a “greeter” at her church. As a greeter, it was Ruth’s responsibility to welcome people to the church. Church services generally began with “praise and worship.” Generally, 50 to 60 persons would be in the church during praise and worship, but as other members of the congregation continued to arrive, the usual attendance at Sunday services was between 100 and 200 persons. During praise and worship one Sunday morning Ruth alleged that “the Spirit of the Holy Ghost began to cause me to dance and shout in the Spirit of Praise.” Before any of the ushers could reach her, Ruth, who was wearing high-heeled shoes, fell to the carpeted floor, injuring her arm. After her fall, the ushers who had come to her aid helped her to the pew where her husband and parents were seated. Ruth’s husband knew nothing of the incident until he observed his wife’s swollen arm and wrist. Ruth later sued her church, seeking recovery for her injury on the ground that the ushers were negligent in failing to catch her when she fell. Specifically, Ruth argued that the church “had a duty to guard and guide me to make sure that I did not get hurt while I was enjoying the worship service in the manner that most worshippers do when the anointing of the Holy Ghost causes them to dance and shout in the spirit of praise.” She claimed that this duty was assumed when the church appointed certain members to serve as ushers who routinely gathered around a member who was “in the Spirit of Praise” to prevent a fall. A trial court dismissed the case, and Ruth appealed.
An appeals court concluded that even if the ushers owed Ruth a duty of reasonable care, such a duty was not breached since Ruth failed to prove that the ushers did not act in a reasonable and prudent manner. None of the several witnesses who testified at the trial stated that the ushers were able to reach Ruth in time to prevent her from falling or that they could have reasonably anticipated her fall. Ruth herself “could not describe what happened to her after she raised her hands and began praying in the Spirit.” Although she stated she was near the ushers, and that she depended upon them to guard her as they had done in the past, there was no evidence that the ushers took an unreasonable length of time to reach her before she fell. She also admitted that she had never “gone off in the Spirit” in the particular area of the church where she was located when the accident occurred.
The court concluded,
[Ruth’s] fall was at an unanticipated time within the service and at an unanticipated place within the church building. Her fall occurred within an extremely short period of time after [an usher] became aware of her actions. Although [an usher] attempted to reach Ruth, she simply did not reach her in time. Any duty that might have been owed by [the usher] would not have required her to do more than she did to prevent the accident. There has been no suggestion that [the usher] or any other official or member of the church did anything to make Ruth fall; there is only the claim that they did not do enough to prevent such an accident. Under these circumstances, [the usher’s] effort to assist Ruth was all that was legally required.
Application. As this case illustrates, church members occasionally sustain injuries when they collapse during worship or prayer. So long as an injury is not anticipated, and the church has ushers or other workers who are available to assist persons in need, the church and its workers can argue that they did all that was reasonably expected of them. The court reached such a conclusion in this case. On the other hand, if a person’s collapse and injury should have been anticipated, then a higher duty of care arises, and a church may be liable for not having an adequate number of workers available to prevent such injuries. McGowan v. Victory and Power Ministries, 757 So.2d 912 (La. App. 2000).
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