• Key point. Churches are not necessarily responsible for injuries sustained by minors while trespassing on church property.
An Ohio court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries sustained by a minor who was injured while trespassing on church property. A church owned a “water drenching machine” that was used at various church activities. The machine was designed to be connected to a hose, and anyone who hit a lever on the machine with a ball caused an individual in the machine to be drenched with water. When not in use, the church stored the machine against a wall in the back of the church. A “no trespassing” sign was posted by the church. In addition, neighborhood children were not permitted to play on church premises during the week. The pastor and his wife frequently chased uninvited children off the property. One day a 6—year—old boy entered the church’s premises, walked around to the back of the church, and crawled onto the machine. He was injured when it fell on him. The boy’s parents sued the church. They claimed that they were not aware that neighbor children were not allowed to play on church property, although they did acknowledge that they were aware of the “no trespassing” sign. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the parents appealed. A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s ruling in favor of the church. It noted that the boy was a trespasser, and that a property owner’s only duty with respect to a trespasser is to “refrain from wantonly or willfully injuring him.” The parents admitted that the church had not acted wantonly or willfully, but they insisted that the church was liable for their son’s injuries on the basis of the “dangerous instrumentality” rule. Under this rule, a property owner has a higher duty of care to a child trespasser when it operates hazardous equipment “the dangerousness of which is not readily apparent to children, on or immediately adjacent to a public place.” The court concluded that this exception did not apply in this case, since the machine was not “on or immediately adjacent to a public place.” To the contrary, the machine was “private property, behind the church building and up against a wall. It was not within easy reach of a child in a public area.”
Application. It is common for neighbor children to play on church premises during the week. This may include use of playground equipment, or riding bikes or roller—blading in the parking lot. Church leaders often are alarmed at the potential liability that may result from injuries to children under these circumstances, but they are at a loss as to what to do about it. This case suggests that “no trespassing” signs may be helpful, especially if church staff regularly attempt to enforce such a policy by advising trespassing children to leave the property. Of course, different courts may reach different results. And, this court acknowledged that some property owners may be liable for injuries to trespassing children on the basis of the “dangerous instrumentality” rule. Richards v. Cincinnati West Baptist Church, 680 N.E.2d 191 (Ohio App. 1996). [Premises Liability]
© Copyright 1998 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m58 c0198