What Duty Does a Church Owe a Person to Keep Its Property Safe?
Every Sunday and Wednesday in Alabama, thousands of people leave their homes and attend church services. And if your church is anything like mine, there are any number of other times throughout the weeks the church doors are open and folks are traversing the halls. And sometimes people at churches (like anywhere else) trip and slip and fall, and sometimes those people get hurt. So what duty does a church owe to keep people safe while they’re on the church’s properties?
Alabama, when you are on another person’s (or company’s) property, you could be designated as one of the following: an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser. Your designation determinations the duty the person or company owes you while you are on the property. The greatest duty to keep a property safe is owed to invitees. Property owners owe the least duty to trespassers.
Alabama courts have determined that “a person attending a church service is a licensee on the church premises.”((Hambright v. First Baptist Church-Eastwood, 638 So.2d 865, 868 (Ala. 1994), citing Autry v. Roebuck Park Baptist Church, 229 So.2d 469 (Ala. 1969); see also Ex parte Wooten, 681 So.2d 149, 150 (Ala. 1996).))
A person who visits a landowner’s property with the landowner’s consent or as the landowner’s guest but with no business purpose occupies the status of a licensee.((See Copeland v. Pike Liberal Arts School, 553 So.2d 100 (Ala.1989); Bryant v. Morley, 406 So.2d 394 (Ala.1981) (“an invited social guest is a licensee of the landowner”); Hambright v. First Baptist Church-Eastwood, 638 So.2d 865, 868 (Ala. 1994).)) The duty owed by a landowner to a licensee is to abstain from willfully or wantonly injuring the licensee and to avoid negligently injuring the licensee after the landowner discovers a danger to the licensee.((Graveman v. Wind Drift Owners’ Ass’n, Inc., 607 So.2d 199 (Ala.1992); Hambright v. First Baptist Church-Eastwood, 638 So.2d 865, 868 (Ala. 1994).))
This duty is not an active one to safely maintain the premises; instead, the landowner has the duty not to set traps or pitfalls and not to willfully or wantonly injure the licensee.((Hambright v. First Baptist Church-Eastwood, 638 So.2d 865, 868 (Ala. 1994).)) A “trap” is a danger that a person who does not know the premises could not avoid by the use of reasonable care.((Graveman v. Wind Drift Owners’ Ass’n, Inc., 607 So.2d 199 (Ala.1992); Hambright v. First Baptist Church-Eastwood, 638 So.2d 865, 868 (Ala. 1994).)) Wantonness has been defined as the conscious doing of some act or conscious omission of some duty by one who has knowledge of the existing conditions and who is conscious that doing, or failing to do, some act will probably result in injury.((Raney v. Roger Downs Ins. Agency, 525 So.2d 1384 (Ala.1988).))
In short, the duty a church owes to people on its property is not to create a trap or to otherwise willfully or recklessly injure a person. It is much more difficult to find a church liable for injuries of someone who is hurt on the premises than for a similar accident that happens at a grocery store or other place of business.
For a different sort of reading about a church, read this story about approaching problems as opportunities versus impositions, which was inspired by an abandoned church.
Photo by me.