Defenses to Premises Liability
Key point 7-20.02. A variety of defenses are available to a church that is sued as a result of an injury occurring on its premises.
Churches have been found innocent of wrongdoing in several cases regardless of the status of the person injured on their property because the condition or activity that caused the injury could not under any circumstances serve as a basis for legal liability. For example, the courts have held that a church is under no duty to illuminate its parking lot when no church activities are in process; Huselton v. Underhill, 28 Cal. Rptr. 822 (1963). to remove oil and grease from its parking lot; Goard v. Branscom, 189 S.E.2d 667 (N.C. 1972), cert. denied, 191 S.E.2d 354 (N.C. 1972). to place markings on a sliding glass door; Sullivan v. Birmingham Fire Insurance Co., 185 So.2d 336 (La. 1966), cert. denied, 186 So.2d 632 (La. 1966). to begin removing snow from church stairways before the end of a snowstorm; Hedglin v. Church of St. Paul, 158 N.W.2d 269 (Minn. 1968). to remove every square inch of snow and ice from its parking lot following a storm; Byrne v. Catholic Bishop, 266 N.E.2d 708 (Ill. 1971). to correct hazardous conditions in a church attic that is inaccessible to the congregation; Miller v. Catholic Bishop of Spokane, 2004 WL 2074328 (unpublished decision, Wash. App. 2004). or to prevent crowded stairways. Gamble v. Shiloh Baptist Church, Inc., 2005 WL 3047274 (unpublished decision, Conn. Super. 2005).
The parents of an infant whose eye was seriously injured in a church nursery during worship services were denied any recovery since no one witnessed the accident and there was no evidence that it was caused by any negligence on the part of the church. Helton v. Forest Park Baptist Church, 589 S.W.2d 217 (Ky. App. 1979). Similarly, a church member doing volunteer work for his church was denied recovery for injuries sustained when a ladder fell on him. The court noted that the member was an invitee, and that the church owed him a legal duty to correct or give notice of concealed, dangerous conditions of which it was or should have been aware. However, the court denied recovery on the ground that the member was aware of the unsecured ladder and the danger it presented, and this knowledge excused the church from its duty of correcting the condition or notifying the member of its existence. Fisher v. Northmoor United Methodist Church, 679 S.W.2d 305 (Mo. App. 1984). Contra Coates v. W.W. Babcock Co., 560 N.E.2d 1099 (Ill. App. 1990).
One or more defenses may be available to a church that is sued by a person who is injured on church premises. Many of these are addressed in chapter 10.
- The Florida Supreme Court held that a church member who was injured when she fell while walking in a dark hallway connecting the sanctuary with a social hall was precluded from suing the church by her own contributory negligence. The court observed that darkness is in itself sufficient warning to signal caution to one entering an unfamiliar situation, and that if one fails to heed the signal, he is guilty of contributory negligence. Trinity Episcopal Church v. Hoglund, 222 So.2d 781 (Fla. 1969).
- A Georgia court ruled that a church was not responsible for injuries suffered by a woman who slipped and fell on church property. The woman had taken her daughter up a wooden ramp to the entrance of a church school, and was injured when she slipped and fell on the way down. It was raining at the time of the accident, and the ramp was wet. Immediately after she fell the woman told the church's pastor that "it's not your fault … it was just raining and I was in a hurry and slipped and fell." The woman had slipped before on the same ramp, and was aware that it was slippery even under dry conditions. She later sued the church as a result of her injuries. A state appeals court, in upholding the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit, observed: "Everyone knows that any wet surface may be slippery. [The woman] has slipped on the ramp when it was dry. She had knowledge of its danger equal and perhaps superior knowledge to [that of the church], and she fell either because she was hurrying or because she chose to negotiate the ramp despite the danger which was obvious to her. The mere fact that a dangerous condition exists, whether caused by a building code violation or otherwise, does not impose liability on the [property owner]." Patterson v. First Assembly of God, 440 S.E.2d 492 (Ga. App. 1994).
- A Michigan court ruled that a church could be sued by the estate of an individual who was killed as a result of a defective ladder while performing work on church property. The decedent was engaged in performing repair and maintenance of a church building when he fell from a church-owned ladder and was killed. His estate sued the church, claiming that its negligence was the cause of the decedent's death. The court concluded that the decedent was an "invitee" on the church's premises. It noted that "an invitor must warn of hidden defects; there is no duty to warn of open and obvious dangers unless the [property owner] anticipates harm to the invitee despite the invitee's knowledge of the defect." The court concluded that "an extension ladder is an essentially uncomplicated instrument which gains a propensity for danger only because it will allow the user to reach great heights. This danger is most obvious to all but children of tender years. …" As a result, a church cannot be legally responsible for injuries suffered by workers who are injured when they fall from a ladder. However, the court cautioned that this rule did not necessarily apply in this case, since the estate of the decedent claimed that the decedent's fall was caused not by the general nature of the ladder itself but rather by a missing or malfunctioning safety latch. The court observed, "The real inquiry is whether this defect must be deemed an open and obvious danger. We think not. The danger that an extension ladder might slip and telescope down because of inadequate bracing at its base … is a danger readily apparent to persons of ordinary intelligence and experience. However, the fact that a safety latch is missing or malfunctioning creates a different, or at least an additional, danger that is not so obvious absent specific knowledge of the defect." Eason v. Coggins Memorial Christian Church, 532 N.W.2d 882 (Mich. App. 1995).
- A Michigan court ruled that a church was not liable for injuries a woman sustained when she tripped on an elevated step to exit a pew, since the step was marked with yellow tape and was an open and obvious hazard that should have been recognized. The court noted that the duty to protect an invitee "does not extend to a condition from which an unreasonable risk of harm cannot be anticipated, or from a condition that is so open and obvious that an invitee could be expected to discover it for himself." Deciding if a dangerous condition is open and obvious "depends on whether it is reasonable to expect that an average person with ordinary intelligence would have discovered the danger upon casual inspection."  Holman v. Church, 2007 WL 292979 (unpublished decision, Mich. App. 2007).
- A Minnesota court concluded that a church member who slipped and fell on an icy stairway while leaving a church service was not entitled to recover damages from the church because her failure to use an available handrail made her contributorily negligent. Hedglin v. Church of St. Paul, 158 N.W.2d 269 (Minn. 1968). But cf. Davis v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 796 P.2d 181 (Mont. 1990). In the Davis case, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a jury's award of more than $400,000 to a young woman who was injured when she slipped and fell on an icy church sidewalk. The church argued that it was not responsible for "natural accumulations" of snow and ice and that it had no duty to warn of a danger that was clearly apparent to a reasonable person. The court concluded that "a property owner may be held liable for falls on accumulations of ice and snow where the hazard created by the natural accumulation is increased or a new hazard is created by an affirmative act of the property owner. Even where such a condition is actually known or obvious, a property owner may be held liable if he should have anticipated that injuries would result from the dangerous condition." The court concluded that the church janitor's act of shoveling the sidewalk without applying any salt left the sidewalk covered with a "sheen of ice" that constituted a new hazard different from the natural accumulation of snow and ice that existed previously. It was this hazard, along with the dangerous slope of the sidewalk (without a railing), that constituted negligence on the part of the church.
- A New York court dismissed a lawsuit brought against a church by a woman who was injured during a church-sponsored activity. The woman and her husband attended a "country fair and barbecue" sponsored by her church. Following dinner, the couple took a raft ride on a nearby lake. After the ride, they were directed to walk on a back lawn area to return to the front of the church building. As the woman walked up a sloping lawn around the outside of a large tree, she slipped and fell, injuring her leg. She claimed that she slipped on ice cubes that were on the ground. A state appeals court dismissed the case. The court concluded that "plaintiff was required to demonstrate … that the condition was caused by [the church's] agents or existed for a sufficient period of time to require [the church] to have corrected it." Since the woman offered no evidence that an agent of the church caused the ice to be discarded on the lawn, or that the ice had been on the lawn for an unreasonable amount of time without being corrected, the lawsuit had to be dismissed. Torani v. First United Methodist Church, 558 N.Y.S.2d 272 (A.D. 3 Dept. 1990). See also Byrd v. Church of Christ, 597 N.Y.S.2d 211 (A.D. 3 Dept. 1993). But see Graff v. St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 625 N.E.2d 851 (Ill. App. 1993), in which the court concluded 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 least 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."
- A Pennsylvania court ruled that a Catholic church and diocese were not responsible for the injuries sustained by a woman who slipped and fell on an icy church parking lot. The woman, who was attending the church to participate in a bingo game, alleged that the parking lot was covered with a sheet of ice and also 5 inches of new snow. She alleged that the church had been negligent in failing to "implement some remedial measure (placing salt or ashes, warning visitors of the presence of ice, or barricading the icy area)," and accordingly the church was responsible for her injuries. A state appeals court ruled that the church was not responsible for the woman's injuries. It observed, "[A]n owner or occupier of land is not liable for general slippery conditions, for to require that one's walks be always free of ice and snow would be to impose an impossible burden in view of the climatic conditions in this hemisphere. Snow and ice upon a pavement create merely a transient danger, and the only duty upon the property owner or tenant is to act within a reasonable time after notice to remove it when it is in a dangerous condition. … [I]n order to recover for a fall on an ice or snow covered sidewalk, a plaintiff must prove (1) that snow and ice had accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians traveling thereon; (2) that the property owner had notice, either actual or constructive, of the existence of such condition; (3) that it was the dangerous accumulation of snow and ice which caused the plaintiff to fall." The court concluded that the injured woman had failed to satisfy this test, and accordingly the church was not responsible for her injuries. Harmotta v. Bender, 601 A.2d 837 (Pa. Super. 1992).
- 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. The court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that "the duty to control traffic has traditionally rested squarely with the government." Further, "[t]he 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." Ferreria v. Strack, 636 A.2d 682 (R.I. 1994). Accord Yi v. Kim, 2008 WL 115814 (Wash. App. 2008) (church not legally responsible for the death of a three-year-old child who was run over and killed by a vehicle that was pulling into a church parking lot).