Woman Injured on Church Property Sues

The church allowed a choral guild to use its facilities rent-free.

Church Law and Tax 1997-03-01

Personal Injuries-on Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point. Churches are not necessarily liable for injuries suffered by persons who enter onto church premises as part of an outside group’s activities.

An Alabama court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries suffered by a woman who was on church premises as part of a choral guild that used the church’s premises on a rent—free basis. The woman was injured when the metal risers on which she was standing collapsed. The choral guild’s director had obtained permission from the church to use its facilities for rehearsals. The woman sued the church, claiming that she was an “invitee” who was owed the highest duty of care, and that the church breached this duty by allowing the choral guild to use defective risers. A court disagreed. It defined an invitee as “one who enters the land of another, with the landowner’s consent, to bestow some material or commercial benefit upon the landowner.” The landowner owes an invitee a duty “to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and, if the premises are unsafe, to warn of hidden defects and dangers that are known to the landowner but that are hidden or unknown to the invitee.” On the other hand, a “licensee” is a person who “enters the land of another with the landowner’s consent or as the landowner’s guest, but without a business purpose.” A landowner owes a licensee a lower standard of care. It must “abstain from willfully or wantonly injuring the licensee and avoid negligently injuring the licensee after the landowner discovers a danger to the licensee.” Stated differently, “the licensee’s entrance on the land carries with it no right to expect the land to be made safe for his reception, but he must assume the risk of whatever may be encountered. Once he is there, the law only requires the landowner to refrain from wantonly, maliciously or intentionally injuring him; in other words, the landowner is not liable unless he does some act which goes beyond mere negligence.” The court concluded that the injured woman was a licensee rather than an invitee since she was on the church’s premises for the benefit of the choral guild. The court observed that “any benefit bestowed upon the church was merely incidental; the church received no payment from the guild for use of its facilities.” The court acknowledged that the metal risers had collapsed on one prior occasion when being used by the guild, and that this incident had been reported to the church. This did not make the church liable for the woman’s injuries, the court concluded, since the church had not breached the duty it owed to a licensee:

Although the risers had collapsed while being used by the guild [six months prior to the woman’s injuries] and the church was made aware of this, the risers had been used on at least three other occasions without incident before [the woman’s accident]. Further, the risers were assembled, tested for safety, and used by members of the guild after the [previous] incident. From these facts, one could not conclude that the risers posed a danger of which the church was aware, or that the church consciously did some act or omitted a duty that it knew would probably result in an injury. Davidson v. Highlands Church, 673 So.2d 765 (Ala. App. 1995). [Premises Liability]

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