• Key point. Churches generally are not liable for accidents that occur on their property unless church leaders were actually aware of the condition that caused the accident and failed to correct it, or the condition had existed for so long that church leaders are presumed to have been aware of it.
A New York court ruled that a church was not legally responsible for injuries sustained by a member who slipped on a puddle of water in a church hallway near a water fountain. The member acknowledged that the church would be legally responsible only if the risk of slipping on water in the hallway was a reasonably foreseeable hazard. However, she insisted that this hazard was foreseeable because the church had placed a stool under the water fountain to allow children to access it. She alleged that it is common knowledge that children who use water fountains cause spills and puddles on the surrounding floor. As a result, the risk of an adult slipping on a puddle of water near the water fountain was foreseeable. The court disagreed. It concluded,
[T]o hold that [the church] created a reasonably foreseeable hazard by providing an unsecured step stool for children to access a hallway water fountain would be to stretch the concept of foreseeability beyond acceptable limits. Certainly there is no evidence that [the church] had actual notice of the water that had spilled in front of the fountain, or that the water was present for a sufficient length of time before the accident to permit [church] employees to discover and remedy it, or that [it] had actual knowledge of any prior spillage of water in front of the fountain, or that spillage was an ongoing and recurring condition that was routinely left unaddressed. Nor is an issue of fact as to [the church’s] notice of a recurring condition raised by [the victim’s] unsupported assertion that it is common knowledge that children are careless and that water will splash from fountains. A mere general awareness that some dangerous condition may be present is legally insufficient to constitute notice of a particular condition.
Application. What about the water fountains in your church? Do you have a stool or other device that allows young children to access one or more water fountains? If so, this case suggests that you will not necessarily be liable for injuries that occur to adults who slip on puddles around such water fountains. However, the court mentioned three important exceptions to this rule. A church may be liable for these accidents if (1) it has actual knowledge of a puddle and does not remove it within a reasonable time, or (2) it has no actual knowledge of a puddle, but the puddle was present for a sufficient amount of time to put church leaders “on notice” of the condition, or (3) puddles are a “recurring problem” around a water fountain. Chaney v. Abyssinian Baptist Church, 667 N.Y.S.2d 737 (A.D. 1998). [Premises Liability]
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