Woman Killed Crossing Street to Attend Mass

Court rules that church had no duty to control traffic.

Church Law and Tax 1994-07-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point: A church is not necessarily responsible for injuries occurring to members who are struck by vehicles when crossing a street to access a parking lot.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that a church was not responsible for the death of a parishioner who was killed when she was struck by a vehicle while crossing a street to enter a parking lot. Three adult members of a Catholic church drove to the church to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. As was the practice of many parishioners, they parked their car in a small parking lot across the street from the church. The parking lot was owned by a neighboring commercial establishment, but church members were allowed to use the parking lot during church services by common consent. The parking lot was separated from the church by a public street. After mass ended, the three members left the church and proceeded to cross the street to reach their car in the parking lot. While in a crosswalk they were struck by a vehicle driven by a drunk driver. One of the members was killed, and another received severe and permanent injuries. On prior occasions the church had asked the city police to provide a traffic officer to control traffic after church services. The police occasionally provided officers in response to the church’s requests if any were available. At no time did the church have a contract with the police to provide traffic officers. No representative of the church had asked the police to provide a traffic officer on the night of the accident. A lawsuit was brought against the church by the injured member and the estate of the member who was killed (the “plaintiffs”). The plaintiffs claimed that the church was responsible for the accident on the basis of the following factors:

  • The church owed members a duty to control traffic on the street in question because it knew that a large number of parishioners crossed the street to reach a parking lot. The plaintiffs stressed that the church did not have adequate parking facilities available on its property.
  • The church voluntarily assumed a duty to patrol traffic by its past conduct of occasionally contacting the police and requesting the assignment of traffic officers.

A trial court dismissed the lawsuit against the church, and the plaintiffs appealed. The Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. The court noted that “the generally accepted rule” is that a landowner has no duty to protect another from intentional or criminal acts of third parties that occur on a public street or highway. This rule is based on 3 considerations: (1) a landowner has no right or ability to control public streets since they are neither owned nor possessed by the landowner; (2) the landowner has no control over the third party who commits the intentional or criminal act; and (3) the protection of the general public “is a duty allocated to the government.” The court observed:

[T]he duty to control traffic has traditionally rested squarely with the government. Historically the control of traffic flow on public ways has been a function carried on by the government in discharge of its obligation for the public health, safety, and welfare …. This factor weighs heavily against the imposition of a duty on an abutting landowner to control traffic. [Further], the church had no control over the property on which the injury occurred. The facts clearly establish that plaintiffs’ injuries occurred not on the church’s premises but on [a public street]. Because one may not control land owned or possessed by another, the church had no right of control over [the street] which is a public way …. This factor also weighs against imposing a duty on an abutting landowner ….

The fact that a landowner may request public traffic control on a public street does not vest in that landowner the personal right or obligation to control such a public way. Consequently, the church’s request for public traffic control would not confer on the church any authority or obligation to control a public highway ….

Traffic control is inherently and traditionally a governmental function and not a burden to be placed upon the private citizenry. Having no duty itself to control traffic, neither would the church have a duty to contact the police and request the stationing of a traffic officer [on the street in question].

In rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim that the church had a duty to control traffic on the adjoining street because it provide in adequate on-site parking for its parishioners, the court observed: “Neither the lack of adequate parking nor the foreseeability that many parishioners would park in the nearby lot requiring them to cross [the street] warrants the imposition of a duty to control traffic on a public highway.” The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the church assumed a duty to control traffic on the adjoining street by previously requesting the police to provide traffic control officers on a number of occasions:

[W]hether or not the church had followed a practice of requesting aid from the police, however sporadically or frequently, no such duty could be assumed by an abutting landowner …. [A]n abutting landowner, such as a theater, a department store, a restaurant, or any other entity that may from time to time attract large numbers of patrons may have a significant interest in the condition of traffic on abutting highways. However, this interest cannot be transformed into a duty of control by a landowner’s requests to municipal or other governmental authorities to perform duties that are wholly governmental in nature.”

This decision, while limited to the state of Rhode Island, will be useful precedent to churches in other states that own (or utilize) parking lots across public streets. Ferreria v. Strack, 636 A.2d 682 (R.I. 1994).

See Also: Premises Liability – Defenses

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