Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship aren't immune from lawsuits. These days, people file injury claims and lawsuits against them with about the same regularity as businesses and government institutions.
Most of these places operate like businesses. They have a hierarchy consisting of officials, employees, and often a large number of volunteers. To protect themselves from injury claims, most carry liability insurance.
Slipping and falling
Churches are places for meditation and prayer. Interior lighting is often dim, casting shadows. Floors are likely to be tile or marble and highly waxed, making them slippery. Steps leading to balconies and altars are usually polished wood. When not covered with carpeting or rubber matting, members and visitors can slip and fall.
Uneven pavement in parking lots, standing snow and ice, and improper rain drainage are also frequent causes of slip and fall injuries on the property.
Vans carry parishioners to performances, bake sales, Meals on Wheels loading centers, and other related activities. Worshippers and volunteers usually drive the vans. Because of the potential for accidents, church liability insurance usually includes all vehicles.
Many houses of worship use candles for devotional service and personal remembrances. Some often provide matches or lighters. While lighting candles, members often must reach over other candles. When this happens, coat sleeves, blouses, and shirts can easily catch fire.
Employee and volunteer misbehavior
Employees and volunteers are extensions of the religious institution itself. They often interact with members. They deliver meals, drive members to and from religious studies, and coordinate functions. In most cases, the church is liable for its employees' actions.
When someone accuses an employee or priest of sexual abuse, the institution officials are especially liable. They're supposed to reveal who has abused those entrusted to their care. This is especially difficult for churches. Because many of them rely on employees and volunteers who come and go, officials must remain vigilant about those permitted to act on their behalf.
Officials must vet employees and volunteers thoroughly to avoid hiring those with behavioral problems. When officials fail to do thorough background and psychological checks, they expose themselves to lawsuits. Because of the continued focus on sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, today more than ever, these institutions must carry high limits of liability insurance.
Assault and robbery frequently occur in the parking lots of religious structures. Visitors are often unsuspecting when walking to and from their cars. They're easy prey for those who target the physically weak and elderly. When officials fail to provide adequate lighting and security, they expose themselves to negligence claims from victims of crimes.
Churches have a legal duty of care (obligation) to protect members, employees, volunteers, and visitors from undue harm. Officials must do everything reasonably possible to prevent accidents and injuries to anyone invited onto the premises.
When officials don't maintain their properties, or their employees or volunteers harm others while working for the institution, the law considers them to have breached (violated) their legal duty of care. Courts consider the act or omission which results in harm to be negligence. Insurance companies especially structure church liability insurance to cover various forms of negligence.
When the religious institution's negligence harms someone, the victim has the right to compensation for her damages. Damages include costs such as medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medicines, crutches, etc., lost wages, and pain and suffering (emotional distress).
Example: Lack of Proper Maintenance
A van was overdue for its annual inspection and maintenance check. A volunteer was to drive church members to a local choir competition. While on the way, the van's right wheel lugs loosened, the wheel fell off and the van crashed, injuring several passengers.
In this case, the court found the church was liable, saying the wheel falling off the van was a foreseeable event. When the church failed to have the van properly inspected and maintained, it was foreseeable an accident might occur. As a result, the church had to pay the injured members' damages.
Example: Driving While Intoxicated
A church employee was to drive members to a local bake sale. The church thoroughly vetted the driver before employment. His driving record was clean and he had no arrest record or criminal history.
Before picking up the members, the driver consumed six beers. While driving, he crossed over the centerline and crashed head-on into a bridge abutment, seriously injuring several of the passengers. His blood alcohol level at the crash site was .25 percent, more than twice the legal limit.
In deciding the passengers' lawsuit against the church, the court found the church was not liable for the passengers' injuries. The court said the church had no way of knowing about the driver's voluntary intoxication, so it was unforeseeable. There was no reasonable way officials could know the driver would drink and drive.
If you're injured on the premises of a church, synagogue or other house of worship, or as a result of an employee's or volunteer's actions, you may have a right to compensation for your damages.
The law says the institution has a legal duty of care (obligation) toward visitors and members. But it also says you have to show (prove) the negligence that caused your injury was foreseeable, and the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your damages. Here's what to do...
Contact an official
If you're injured, tell someone. Don't feel embarrassed, and whatever you do, don't leave. If you leave without reporting the accident, or without asking for immediate medical care, you squander your opportunity to prove the accident was the direct and proximate cause of your injury.
Unlike finding a business' designated manager or supervisor, finding someone in charge of a house of worship may be a bit more difficult. Some religious institutions own buildings where the clergy live, and others have secretaries or other attendants. If you're injured and ambulatory, go to whoever is there and ask to speak with someone in charge. Report your injury and its cause.
If, for example, while lighting a candle your sleeve caught on fire and burned you, tell the official. If you're in severe pain, ask him to call 911. At the same time, ask him to write a report of the accident. Although you can't legally force the person to write a report, it's likely he will for administrative and insurance purposes.
If the paramedics come, they'll treat you on the scene. If your burn is serious enough, they'll take you to the local emergency room. The paramedics will write a patient injury report. You can get a copy of it several days later for a nominal charge, usually less than $10.
Get witness statements
Eyewitnesses are very strong links in proving negligence and proximate cause. Family and friends make good witnesses, but independent eyewitnesses or Good Samaritans are better. Independent eyewitnesses have no personal or financial stake in your claim. As a result, insurance company claims adjusters don't often challenge their credibility.
Let's say you're a volunteer delivering Meals on Wheels to an elderly man. While picking up the meals and loading them into your car, you slipped and fell on some ice in the church parking lot. A passerby helped you up and noticed blood on your arms and legs.
A written statement from that witness will directly link your fall to your injury. The statement could confirm where you fell, the day and time, the reason you fell, and the type of injury you suffered.
If a witness, whether an independent person, a family member or a friend, sees you get injured, make sure to ask her to write down what she saw. Any piece of paper will do. Ask her to write as detailed a version as possible and then sign and date the statement.
Take pictures and video
Today, most cell phones can take photos and have video recording capabilities. Cell phone recordings are excellent ways to document your injury and the reason for it. The photograph, video, and audio functions are crucial documenting techniques. Use the date and time stamp function, essentially freezing in time the moments surrounding the accident.
For example, if while walking up steps inside the building, you tripped and fell on torn carpeting, make sure to focus the lens as closely as possible to the tear in the carpet. The more distinct the image the stronger your evidence is. If an attendant is available, ask him why the carpet isn't fixed and record his answer.
Treatment records, medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages are all proof of the type and amount of your damages. Be sure to get copies of emergency room admitting charts and the doctor's written diagnosis and prognosis.
If you missed work, ask your boss to write a letter on company letterhead verifying your lost wages. If you lost any bonuses or vacation days, have her state that amount as well. Make copies of everything that has any bearing on your financial losses. They are all direct proof of your damages.
Your first contact with the church's liability insurance company involves reporting your injury and filing a claim. Be sure to ask the representative for the claim number. It's your reference for future negotiations.
When you get to speak with the claims adjuster, she'll ask for your recorded statement. It's normal and begins the investigation. You'd be wise to consult with an attorney before giving your recorded statement. If you elect to give your statement, stick to the facts and don't allude to your own negligence. Let her know you have copies of your damages to date.
Once your treatment has concluded and the adjuster has copies of all your damages, then settlement negotiations can begin in earnest.
If your injuries are soft tissue injuries like minor cuts, sprains and bruises, you can probably handle your own claim. If your injuries are the more serious hard injuries like second or third-degree burns, scarring, broken bones, or head trauma, you need an attorney.
Attorneys can conduct extensive pretrial discovery of the church's records, prior injury claims, and remedial action taken. In serious injury claims, experienced personal injury attorneys can normally settle for much higher amounts than you can on your own.
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