• Key point 7-20.2. Churches may be legally responsible for injuries occurring on their premises while being used by an outside group, if they maintain sufficient “control” over their premises during such use.
• Key point 7-20.4. A variety of defenses are available to a church that is sued as a result of an injury occurring on its premises. Premises Liability
• 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
• Key point 10-16.3. A church is not legally responsible for an injury that occurs on its premises or in the course of one of its activities if the injury resulted from the intervention of a new and independent cause that was unforeseeable. Negligence as a Basis for Liability
A New York court ruled that a religious organization that owned a camp was not legally responsible for injuries sustained by a 12-year-old camper who fell while climbing a tower without permission. A 12-year-old girl (the “victim”) was attending a summer camp at a 600-acre campground owned by a religious organization. One evening the campers attended a campfire. The victim received permission to leave the campfire to find sticks for roasting marshmallows. Instead, the victim went with three other campers to a tower located a short distance from the campfire, but not visible from it. There was no hiking trail leading from the campfire to the tower, and they walked along a seldom-used dirt road to reach the tower. Although the victim had been at the campground before, she had not known of the tower’s existence. The victim and the three other campers used the ladder affixed to the side of the tower to climb to the top, where they remained for approximately 10 minutes. They decided to climb down and return to the cabins when their midnight curfew approached. One of the other campers descended the ladder first, followed by the victim. When that camper stopped momentarily after descending less than five feet, the victim asked him if he had reached the bottom. Although he responded in the negative, the victim could not understand him because he had a flashlight in his mouth. Thinking that he had said yes, she stepped off the side of the ladder and fell approximately 25 feet to the ground, sustaining injuries. The victim’s parents sued the religious organization that owned the campgrounds, claiming that it had been negligent in (1) failing to warn of the danger of climbing the tower, (2) failing to erect a fence or some other barrier around the tower, and (3) failing to provide proper supervision for the victim. A trial court refused to dismiss the case, and the religious organization appealed.
A Landowner’s Duty
A state appeals court began its decision by noting that
a landowner or occupier of land owes a duty to persons coming upon his or her land to keep it in a reasonably safe condition, considering all the circumstances, including the purpose of the person’s presence on the land and the likelihood of injury …. The landowner or occupier of land has no duty, however, to warn against a condition that can readily be observed by those employing the reasonable use of their senses. The victim testified at her deposition that she was aware of the danger of climbing a 30-foot tower at night and was concerned about her safety. While at the top of the tower, she asked her fellow campers, “could you imagine if someone fell off this thing?” The danger of climbing a 30-foot tower at night is obvious, and, moreover, Laura was expressly aware of the danger. [The campgrounds owner] therefore had no duty to warn her of the danger …. We further conclude that [it] had no duty to enclose the tower with a fence or other barricade.
The court noted that an organization ordinarily cannot be liable for negligence unless an injury was foreseeable, and that this requirement was not met in this case: “The executive director of the campground was aware of the tower’s existence, but he was not aware of anyone climbing it. The tower was not accessible by any hiking trails on the property, and there were no scheduled camp activities near it. There was no evidence that any [camp worker] was aware of the tower’s existence until the day of the accident. Under those circumstances, [the campground owner’s] duty to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition did not extend to protecting [the victim] from her injuries.”
Supervision of Children
The court concluded that the camping organization provided the victim with proper supervision:
The standard of care for persons having children entrusted to their care in this summer camp setting is that of a reasonably prudent parent. In such a setting, constant supervision is neither feasible nor desirable because “one of the benefits of such an institution is to inculcate self-reliance in the campers which an overly protective supervision would destroy.” Although [the camping organization] had supervisors at the campfire, [the victim] told them that she was leaving to look for sticks in the woods; she did not tell them that she was going to climb the tower. Nor is [the campground owner] liable for negligent supervision; it had no control over the day-to-day activities of the children attending the camp.
The Victim’s Own Conduct
The court concluded that even if the camping organization and campground owner were negligent, the victim’s “own reckless conduct was the sole cause of her injuries. [She] knew the dangers inherent in climbing the tower and ignored those dangers. Thus, her reckless conduct was an unforeseeable, superseding event sufficient to absolve defendants of liability.”
Application. This case is significant for several reasons. First, it illustrates that property owners are not liable for injuries occurring because of conditions that are “readily observable.” The victim in this case was aware of the danger of climbing a 30-foot tower at night, and still she exposed herself to that danger with tragic results. Second, the case demonstrates that an organization cannot be liable for unforeseeable injuries. The campground owner was aware of the tower, but was not aware that any camper had ever climbed it. No leader of the camping organization using the campgrounds at the time of the injury was even aware of the tower’s existence. The court concluded that the victim’s injuries were not foreseeable, and so no one was guilty of negligence. Third, the court recognized that “constant supervision” of children in a camp setting “is neither feasible nor desirable because one of the benefits of such an institution is to inculcate self-reliance in the campers which an overly protective supervision would destroy.” This is an important conclusion that will be useful in other cases. Fourth, the religious organization that owned the campground was not guilty of negligent supervision since “it had no control over the day-to-day activities of the children attending the camp.” Gustin v. Association of Camps Farthest Out, Inc., 2000 WL 1686 (N.Y.A.D. 1999).
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