Churches Can Be Held Liable for Off-Site Injuries

Mitigating risk is a priority for land/property owners and businesses but religious organizations must also consider and mitigate potential liability risk such as slip and fall hazards. You would think a religious entity could never be held liable for an accident that occurred somewhere other than on the grounds of the church… Think again.

A visitor of Grace Family Church, who was stuck by a vehicle while attempting to cross a busy street to attend a function at the church prevailed in a lawsuit against the church.

The incident occurred in Sacramento, California where Plaintiff, Alekandr Vaslenko was injured by a vehicle after parking his car in a lot across the street from the church location. He and his wife Larisa parked their vehicle on the lot of the Debbie Meyer Swim School and began crossing the street near Marconi and Roots Avenues with another couple. They noticed the headlights of an approaching vehicle and the four ran to avoid the car when Mr. Vaslenko was struck by the vehicle and injured.

The swim school agreed to allow the church to use their lot to accommodate overflow parking for the event. Church volunteers, who served as parking attendants directed drivers where to park their vehicles and even provided printed maps showing places other than the swim school where attendees could park.

The court initially ordered in favor of the church; however, the Court of Appeals overturned the trial court ruling stating the church owed a duty of care to the attendees which was breached when the church failed to reasonably train and educate their parking lot attendants with regards to advising, instructing and providing assistance to attendees on how to cross the street and of any potential hazards thereof.

Although the church made a compelling argument that they did not own, possess or control a public street and further did not have duty to assist with or provide instruction on safely crossing the street, the court agreed with Mr. Vaslenko’s contention that the church created a dangerous condition by selecting a location near a high traffic area with no cross walk or traffic light signal.

The basis of the court’s decision was that the church maintained and operated the lot in a location that directed them to that lot when the main lot on the church grounds was full and required its invitees to cross a busy thoroughfare.

The ruling brought to light that those who own, possess and/or control property have a duty to exercise ordinary care in managing the property in order to avoid exposing others to an unreasonable risk of harm.

There have been similar outcomes where the courts have ruled in favor of plaintiffs in such cases. There was the tragic case of a child who was struct and killed while riding a tricycle along a sidewalk in an apartment complex. The Court of Appeals concluded the duty of care includes duty to avoid exposing persons to risk of injury that occur off-site if the landowner exposes them to unreasonable risk. Barnes v. Black (199) 71 Cal. App.4th 1473, 84 Cal. Rptr.2d 634.

The Barnes case had to do with how the property was maintained, as well as the construction of the sidewalk used by the decedent, and a driveway that slopped down to a busy street.

Grace Family Church performed no maintenance nor made improvements to the property that increased the risk beyond that posed by its location next to a busy street.

We live in an age where large cities service a multitude of businesses located near high traffic areas and busy streets. Typically, there is no duty of a landowner or parking lot operators to guarantee the safety of pedestrians who cross high traffic streets; however, this case will make property and business owners consider possible foreseeable risks of harm when maintaining an area of land.

Blog by M. A. Williams

2/28/20

Informational Source: C.A.R. Legal ‘Important California and Federal real estate related cases’ webpage.