Personal Injuries on Church Property or During Church Activities

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that nonmembers who visit churches for noncommercial reasons are “licensees” to whom churches owe a minimal duty of care.

Key point 7-20.01 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."

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that nonmembers who visit churches for noncommercial reasons are "licensees" to whom churches owe a minimal duty of care making it less likely that churches will be liable for injuries occurring to such persons while on church premises. A woman ("Paula") was injured when she tripped over a concrete tire stop in a church's parking lot. She was visiting the church to attend a Bible study. Paula sued the church, alleging that it negligently placed the tire stops and failed to provide adequate lighting in the parking lot. A jury ruled in favor of the church on the ground that Paula was a "licensee" rather than an "invitee" and therefore the church owed her a minimal duty of care. The state supreme court accepted an appeal of the case "to determine the proper standard of care owed to individuals on church property for noncommercial purposes." The court began its opinion by noting that Michigan, like most states, recognizes three categories for persons who enter upon the land or premises of another: (1) trespasser, (2) licensee, or (3) invitee. Each of these categories corresponds to a different standard of care that is owed to those injured on the owner's premises. As a result, a landowner's duty to a visitor depends on that visitor's status. The court provided the following summary of the duty owed by a landowner to each category of visitor:

A "trespasser" is a person who enters upon another's land, without the landowner's consent. The landowner owes no duty to the trespasser except to refrain from injuring him by "willful and wanton" misconduct.

A "licensee" is a person who is privileged to enter the land of another by virtue of the possessor's consent. A landowner owes a licensee a duty only to warn the licensee of any hidden dangers the owner knows or has reason to know of, if the licensee does not know or have reason to know of the dangers involved. The landowner owes no duty of inspection or affirmative care to make the premises safe for the licensee's visit. Typically, social guests are licensees who assume the ordinary risks associated with their visit. The final category is invitees.

An "invitee" is "a person who enters upon the land of another upon an invitation which carries with it an implied representation, assurance, or understanding that reasonable care has been used to prepare the premises, and make [it] safe for [the invitee's] reception." The landowner has a duty of care, not only to warn the invitee of any known dangers, but the additional obligation to also make the premises safe, which requires the landowner to inspect the premises and, depending upon the circumstances, make any necessary repairs or warn of any discovered hazards. Thus, an invitee is entitled to the highest level of protection under premises liability law. A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if the owner: (a) knows of, or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover, the condition and should realize that the condition involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees; (b) should expect that invitees will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it; and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect invitees against the danger.

The court concluded that persons who visit churches for noncommercial purposes should be regarded as licensees to whom a church owes a lower duty of care. It observed,

We conclude that the imposition of additional expense and effort by the landowner, requiring the landowner to inspect the premises and make them safe for visitors, must be directly tied to the owner's commercial business interests. It is the owner's desire to foster a commercial advantage by inviting persons to visit the premises that justifies imposition of a higher duty. In short, we conclude that the prospect of pecuniary gain is a sort of quid pro quo for the higher duty of care owed to invitees. Thus, we hold that the owner's reason for inviting persons onto the premises is the primary consideration when determining the visitor's status: In order to establish invitee status, a plaintiff must show that the premises were held open for a commercial purpose. With regard to church visitors, we [conclude] that such persons are licensees …. The solicitation of entirely voluntary donations by a nonprofit organization is plainly not a commercial activity. Accordingly, a church providing an opportunity for voluntary donations during a religious service that are in no way required to attend the service, i.e., passing a collection plate, does not transform one who attends the church service and elects to make a donation from a licensee into an invitee. Indeed, we imagine that many religious individuals would find it offensive to have their voluntary donations to a church regarded as part of a business or commercial transaction, rather than as a gift intended to aid in various religious good works.

Application. In many cases, a church's liability for injuries occurring on its premises will depend on the victim's status. It is far 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. This case makes a strong case for treating visitors to churches as licensees rather than invitees. However, the court cautioned that many states have adopted section 332 of the Restatement of Torts (a respected, but nonbonding legal text), that defines "invitee" to include "a person who is invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public." The court acknowledged that this language "creates an invitee status that does not depend on a commercial purpose." However, the court declined to adopt this definition. Stitt v. Holland Abundant Life Fellowship, 614 N.W.2d 88 (Mich. 2000).

See also: Premises Liability

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