Key point 10-16.02. Adults who voluntarily expose themselves to a known risk created by a church program or activity generally cannot sue the church if they are injured as a result of that risk.
Persons who voluntarily expose themselves to a known danger or to a danger that was so obvious that it should have been recognized will be deemed to have assumed the risks of their conduct. As a result, persons who voluntarily expose themselves to the negligent conduct of a defendant with full knowledge of the danger will be barred from recovery for any injuries resulting from the defendant’s negligence.
Assumption of risk is closely related to contributory negligence. One court has distinguished the two by noting that assumption of risk connotes “venturousness,” whereas contributory negligence connotes a state of carelessness.188 Cross v. Noland, 190 S.E.2d 18 (W. Va. 1972).To illustrate, one court ruled that an adult church member who was seriously injured when he slipped and fell on a wet linoleum floor immediately following his baptism by immersion could sue his church if the church knew or should have known that the floor presented an unreasonable risk of harm. However, the court concluded that the church’s negligence might be superseded by the victim’s own negligence in carelessly exposing himself to a known hazard.189 Huston v. First Church of God, 732 P.2d 173 (Wash. App. 1987).
- An Illinois court ruled that a church board member who was seriously injured when he fell off a ladder while installing a ceiling fan in the church was barred from recovering any damages because of his assumption of a known risk.190 Coates v. W.W. Babcock Co., 560 N.E.2d 1099 (Ill. App. 1990). However, the court concluded that the board member had presented enough evidence to sue the church for a violation of the state “Structural Work Act,” which protects any person employed or engaged on a ladder while undertaking the repair of a building. The court ordered the case to proceed to trial on this basis. The court observed, “[I]t is well-established that a landowner is not liable for injuries resulting from open and obvious dangers on the premises, including the open and obvious danger of falling from high places. We determine that [the board member’s] attempt to install the ceiling fans in the church’s high ceiling by positioning his ladder in the church pews was an open and obvious danger, and his injuries are therefore not recoverable. …”
- The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that a minor who had been rendered a quadriplegic as a result of injuries sustained while playing football for a church-operated high school could not sue the church.191 Wicina v. Strecker, 747 P.2d 167 (Kan. 1987). But see Locilento v. John A. Coleman Catholic High School, 523 N.Y.S.2d 198 (1987), in which a New York court concluded that voluntary participation in an athletic contest, without more, amounts to only an implied assumption of risk that is not a complete bar to recovery in the event of an accident. It is, however, a factor to be considered in assessing fault. “We feel sympathy for the severe injuries suffered by this plaintiff,” the court concluded. “However, there are dangers and risks inherent in the game of football and those who play the game encounter these risks voluntarily.”