Pastor, Church & Law

Use of Church Property by Outside Groups

§ 07.20.03

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).
  • Can a charity be legally responsible for an injury occurring on its premises while being used by an outside group? That was the question addressed by a Louisiana court in a recent decision. A charity permitted an outside group to use its facility for a Christmas party. During the party, a woman suffered serious injuries when she fell on a slippery floor. As a result of her injuries the woman underwent surgery for a complete hip replacement. She later sued the charity, claiming that it was responsible for her injuries because it had retained control over the premises during the party. She claimed that the floor was unreasonably slippery, and this dangerous condition caused her to fall. One witness testified, “It was obvious that floor was slippery. It was just waxed or something. I mean it wasn’t dirty. It was clean. Probably too clean.” The charity asked the court to dismiss the case, but its request was denied. On appeal, a state appeals court suggested that there was sufficient evidence that the charity retained control over its premises during the party to send the case to a jury. The court began its opinion by acknowledging that a property owner may be legally responsible for injuries that occur on its premises when they are under its custody or control. The court suggested that the charity had retained control over its premises during the Christmas party on the basis of the following factors: (1) the charity was responsible for setting up tables for the party; (2) the charity provided a custodian during the entire party; and (3) the charity was responsible for opening the premises at the beginning of the party and locking the premises at the conclusion of the party. The charity’s custodian admitted that he had cleaned the floor prior to the party and that he was on duty and responsible for cleaning the floor during the party. 275 Aufrichtig v. Progressive Men’s Club, 634 So.2d 947 (La. App. 2 Cir. 1994).

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