Personal Injuries – Part 1

On Church Premises or During Church Activities

Church Law and Tax 1989-09-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Premises or During Church Activities

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that an unincorporated church and its board of trustees could be sued by a member who was injured when she slipped and fell on a waxed floor while leaving a Sunday School class. The member argued that she was an “invitee” and accordingly that the church owed her a high degree of care which it breached. The church maintained that the member was merely a “licensee” to whom it owed a minimal duty of care. Under Mississippi law (as is true in many states) a property owner owes licensees only the minimal duty of refraining from willfully and wantonly injuring them through active negligence. A much higher duty applies to invitees—a property owner owes such persons a duty of keeping the premises reasonably safe and to warn them about (or correct) dangerous conditions of which it is aware (or should have been aware). A trial court ruled that the member was a licensee, and that her injury had not been caused by any active negligence on the part of the church. The member appealed, and the state supreme court ruled that the member was in fact an invitee at the time of her injury. The court observed that the term invitee includes both “public invitees” and “business visitors.” A public invitee is “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,” while a business visitor is “a person who is invited to enter or remain on land for a purpose directly or indirectly connected with business dealings with the possessor of the land.” On the other hand, a licensee is one “who enters upon the property of another for his own convenience, pleasure or benefit pursuant to the license or implied permission of the owner.” In applying these definitions to church members, the court concluded: “Members of religious associations, in general … fall within the category of ‘public invitees.’ Religious bodies do expressly and impliedly invite members to come and attend their services and functions. They hold their doors open to the public. While they do not charge admission fees … churches do depend on contributions … in order that they may continue to be open to the public. Therefore, a church member who does not exceed the scope of the church’s invitation, is an invitee while attending a church for church services or related functions.” Accordingly, the member who slipped and fell on the waxed floor was an invitee to whom the church owed a high degree of care, rather than a mere licensee to whom the church owed only a minimal duty of care. Clark v. Moore Memorial United Methodist Church, 538 So.2d 760 (Miss. 1989).

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