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by Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA

Use of Church Property by Outside Groups

§ 7.20.03
Key point 7-20.03. Churches may be legally responsible for injuries occurring on their premises while being used by an outside group, if they maintain sufficient "control" over their premises during such use.

Churches often let outside groups use their premises. Examples include scout troops, preschools, aerobics classes, substance abuse groups, childbirth classes, and music classes. Some courts have found churches liable for injuries occurring on their premises while being used by such groups so long as they maintained "control" over their premises while the outside group was present.

Case studies
  • An Indiana court ruled that a church was liable for an injury occurring on its premises while being used by an outside group. A church permitted a local community group to use its facilities for an annual one-day celebration. The event was advertised in the church bulletin, and included a religious ceremony. After the ceremony, guests were ushered into another room for a reception where refreshments were served. While refreshments were being served, volunteers disassembled the tables and chairs in the room where the ceremony occurred. Although the guests were asked to proceed to the reception immediately following the ceremony, a few guests remained behind to socialize. As one of these guests proceeded to the reception area a few minutes later, she tripped and fell over some of the disassembled tables. She later sued the church. The church claimed that it was not responsible for the guest's injuries since it had not retained any control over its facilities while they were being used by the community group for its celebration. The church also pointed out that the group was permitted to use the facilities without charge, that it was responsible for cleaning up the facilities following its activities, and that the church did not retain any control over the facilities during the celebration. A state appeals court noted that "the church is correct in observing that control of the premises is the basis of premises liability." However, the court concluded that there was ample evidence of control by the church. It observed: "[The priest] testified … that if he chose to do so, he could have decided not to allow the [community group] to hold their function there; that there was a janitor on the premises to make sure the buildings were locked; that the [organization] was not in charge of securing the premises; that the church placed an announcement in the church bulletin regarding when and where the celebration was to take place; that the church conducted a religious ceremony as a part of the celebration; and that he would not say that the church relinquished control over the property. This testimony was enough to create an issue of fact as to whether the church retained control over the premises."[274] St. Casimer Church v. Frankiewics, 563 N.E.2d 1331 (Ind. App. 1990).

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