Recent Developments in South Carolina Regarding Personal Injuries

A South Carolina court ruled that a church was not liable for injuries sustained by a person when he was attacked on church property.

Church Law and Tax1999-03-01

Personal Injuries

Key point. A church is not necessarily liable for assaults that occur on its premises unless it knew or should have known that the offender was likely to engage in such acts.

A South Carolina court ruled that a church was not liable for injuries sustained by a person when he was attacked on church property. A church owned an apartment complex that is used as low income housing. Despite the fact that the apartment building was in a high-crime area, and church leaders were aware of numerous incidents of criminal behavior occurring within the building, the church did not provide a security guard. A man (the “victim”) was injured when he was attacked while visiting a friend in the apartment building. The victim sued the church, claiming that it was responsible for his injuries on the basis of negligence. A state appeals court disagreed. The court observed:

A [property] owner has a duty to take reasonable care to protect invitees. However, this duty does not extend to protection from criminal attacks from third persons unless the owner knew or had reason to know the criminal attack would occur… . In this case [the victim and his mother] stated they knew of criminal activity that had occurred at [the apartment building] in the past, including an alleged shooting. In addition [the victim] asserted he knew [his attacker] was a violent person and that he had seen [him] involved in other fights at the complex. However, there is no evidence in the record that [the church] was aware of [the attacker’s] previous fights or of any incident that day that would put management on notice the attack [on the victim] might occur. Therefore [the church] had no duty to protect [the victim] from an intentional attack ….

Application. Unfortunately, church members occasionally are assaulted on church property. To illustrate, members have been assaulted on church parking lots while walking toward their car at night after a service or event at their church. Is the church legally responsible for such assaults? This case suggests that the church can be responsible only if it was aware of previous assaults on its premises. Property owners are not liable for such assaults unless they know or have reason to know the criminal attack would occur. As a result, churches that have had members assaulted in their parking lot, or on other portions of their premises, should recognize that they are at a higher risk of liability for injuries suffered by future assault victims. The church may be legally responsible for such injuries unless it can demonstrate that it used reasonable care in protecting against such attacks. How can a church do so? Churches have used some or all of the following measures: (1) Provide adequate illumination of the parking lot. (2) Designate “escorts” who will accompany persons to their car upon request. (3) Station volunteers in the parking lot. (4) Install a wide-angle video camera on the church roof. (5) Have a uniformed security guard, or off-duty police officer, monitor the parking lot. For more suggestions, church leaders should contact their insurance agent. Goode v. St. Stephens United Methodist Church, 494 S.E.2d 827 (S.C. 1998). [Premises Liability]

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