Woman Slips on Icy Church Stairs

Court rules that church can be sued for injuries.

Church Law and Tax 1994-09-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point: A church may be responsible for injuries occurring on church premises due to snow accumulation if the snow was either accumulated in an unnatural manner or negligently removed.

An Illinois appeals court ruled that a church could be sued for injuries sustained by a member who fell down snow and ice covered stairs on church premises. The victim went to her church at around 6:30 p.m. on a January evening to practice with her rock band, Romantic Fever, in the church basement. A member of the church board served as the band’s manager. The building is reached by a number of wooden stairs. The stairs have a handrail down the middle, but not on the sides. The victim left the church at 10 p.m. following the band rehearsal. As she faced the bottom of the stairs looking down, she could see a mixture of ice and snow on the right side of the steps to a depth of between one-half inch and three inches. Snow had been thrown to the left side of the stairs over the handrail and this side was impassable. The victim proceeded down the stairs and slipped on the first or second step. She fell down the rest of the stairs, injuring her back. She did not know the source of the snow on which she slipped, and did not know who had partially removed the snow from the steps. When asked whether anything about the stairs themselves contributed to her fall, she stated that there was no handrail down the right side and that the steps were warped. The board member noticed snow on the church steps on several occasions during the day of the accident. He discussed the problem with the pastor who was “very perturbed” that the snow was not being cleared within a reasonable time and was not being cleared to his satisfaction. The pastor expected complete snow removal, meaning edge to edge on the steps. Before the accident, the board member had talked with the church custodians (a husband and wife) about this problem and conveyed the minister’s feelings about complete snow removal. It was the custodians’ duty to remove snow from the stairs. The board member said following the accident that “had the snow removal been taken care of, this wouldn’t have occurred.” One the custodians stated that she had moved snow on the church stairs from one side to another on the day of the accident, but did not clear it completely. The woman sued the church, and a trial court threw the case out on the basis of the church’s motion for summary judgment. The woman appealed, and a state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The court observed that “there is generally no duty to remove natural accumulations of ice and snow” and that “[t]he mere removal of snow leaving a natural ice formation underneath does not constitute negligence.” However, a church or other property owner can be legally responsible for injuries in at two situations: (1) snow is removed in a negligent manner, or (2) “an injury occurred as the result of snow or ice produced or accumulated by artificial causes or in an unnatural way, or by the defendant’s use of the premises.” The court continued:

Here, there is sufficient evidence in the record from which a trier of fact could conclude that [the church] created or permitted to exist an unnatural accumulation of snow and ice on the steps. [The victim] testified that the snow had been removed from one side of the stairs and thrown over the handrail onto the other side. A jury could thus conclude that the ice on which [the victim] fell was caused by runoff from the snow piled on the other side of the stairs …. [The church] contends that [the victim] failed to show affirmatively that there was a “nexus” between the snow on the left side of the stairs and the ice on which [she] fell …. [T]he snow was piled on the left side of the stairs, separated from the opposite side by only a double handrail. It is reasonable to conclude that the ice on which [the victim] slipped came from the snow piled on the other side of the stairs.

The court rejected the church’s claim that there was no evidence that it was responsible for the accumulation of snow on the left side of the stairs. The court noted that “there was ample evidence from which a jury could conclude that [the church’s] agents were responsible for the unnatural accumulation of snow on the stairs.” It referred to the fact that the board member testified that the custodians were primarily responsible for snow removal at the church, and that volunteer groups at the church or church members themselves would occasionally remove some snow. There was no evidence that anyone not connected with the church ever removed snow from the church steps. Moreover, the court concluded, “even if we accepted the tenuous conclusion that some unknown person completely unconnected with the church gratuitously undertook to remove the snow from the steps, a question of fact would still exist concerning whether the church was chargeable with knowledge of the unnatural accumulation on the steps and would thus be liable on this basis.” The board member testified that he was aware of the situation prior to the date of the accident and had brought it to the attention of other church officials. Even if the church or its agents did not create the condition, “a jury could still find that it had knowledge of the condition and failed to correct it.” The court also ruled that the trial court erred in not considering the victim’s assertion that the church had been negligent in not constructing handrails on the sides of the stairway and in failing to correct the warped condition of the stairs. Graff v. St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 625 N.E.2d 851 (Ill. App. 2 Dist. 1993).

See Also: Premises Liability

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