Personal Injuries on Church Property or During Church Activities

A New York court ruled that a church was not legally responsible for the injuries sustained by a 3-year-old child who suffered lead poisoning.

Church Law and Tax2001-03-01

Personal Injuries On Church Property Or During Church Activities

Key point 7-08. Most cities have enacted building codes that prescribe minimum standards in the construction of buildings. The courts have ruled that these laws may be applied to churches so long as they are reasonably related to the promotion of public health and safety.
Building Codes

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

A New York court ruled that a church was not legally responsible for the injuries sustained by a 3-year-old child who suffered lead poisoning when she swallowed lead-based paint while residing in a church-owned home. A church owned a two-story residence that it leased to a community center that made emergency short-term housing available to families in need. A mother and her three young children moved into the home, and the youngest child sustained injuries from lead poisoning as a result of lead that she swallowed while residing in the home. A public health agency later inspected the home and found lead paint which it ordered the church to remove. The victim’s mother sued the church, arguing that her daughter’s injuries had been caused by the church’s negligence in maintaining a dangerous condition on the premises. The court noted that for the mother to prevail, she had to prove not only that a dangerous condition existed, but also that the church had notice of the condition for a sufficient length of time to have remedied it. The church claimed that it had no knowledge of any hazardous lead or lead paint condition prior to notification from the public health agency, and therefore it could not be liable on the basis of negligence. It rejected the mother’s claim that the existence of stained glass windows and chipped and peeled paint constituted notice of a lead hazard.

The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act

The mother’s lawsuit did not seek damages from the church on the basis of a violation of the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992. This was probably due to unfamiliarity with the law. This Act was designed to address the problem of exposure to lead-based paint in residential housing. The Act regulates the sale and lease of “target housing,” which it defines as “any housing constructed prior to 1978.” There are no exceptions for housing that is owned by churches or other charitable organizations. Each contract to lease target housing must include an “attachment” that contains (1) a “lead warning statement”; (2) a statement disclosing the presence of any known lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards in the target housing, or indicating no knowledge of the presence of lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards; (3) a statement by the lessee affirming that it has received the lead warning statement, the lessor’s statement disclosing the presence of any lead paint or lead-based paint hazards, and a lead hazard information pamphlet (the pamphlet may be the federal pamphlet entitled “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home” or a state-developed pamphlet that has been approved by EPA); (4) a statement by any agent involved in the transaction that the agent has informed the lessor of the lessor’s obligations and that the agent is aware of his or her duty to ensure compliance with the requirements of this rule; and (5) signatures of the lessor, real estate agent, and lessee, certifying the accuracy of their statements on the attachment, along with their dates of signature. The key point here is that churches may be legally liable for injuries caused by persons who purchase or rent church-owned residential property and who are poisoned by lead-based paint. Violation of the requirements that apply to sellers and lessors of target housing may result in (1) civil and criminal penalties, (2) potential triple damages in a private civil suit, and (3) an obligation to pay the attorney fees and expert witness fees of victims. As the New York case illustrates, lessors also may be liable on the basis of negligence for injuries to children who consume lead-based paint while living in a church-owned residence. The application of the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act to churches is addressed fully in a feature article in the March-April 2000 issue of this newsletter. Alexander v. Westminster Presbyterian Church, 2000 WL 1876369 (N.Y. 2000).

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