Think you can’t sue a church? Think again. Here’s what you need to know about church liability and how to get the compensation you deserve for your injuries.
For many, churches are a comforting place to visit, and church-related activities are fun and inspiring.
Unfortunately, accidents and injuries can happen anywhere, even in churches.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship aren’t immune from lawsuits. To protect themselves from injury claims, most religious organizations carry liability insurance.
If you’ve been injured due to the negligence of a religious organization, you have the legal right to pursue compensation for your damages.
Common Church Accidents and Injuries
Injuries can happen on church property, at church-sponsored events, or through the fault of a church employee or volunteer. Some of the most common causes of injuries are:
Slip and Falls: Most injuries in any location open to the public are the result of a slip and fall. Older people are particularly at risk for serious injuries from slips and falls. Slippery or uneven flooring, narrow stairs, lack of safety railings, snow and ice are a few causes of slip and fall accidents.
Injuries from slip and falls can include:
- Fractured arm or wrist
- Broken hip
- Head trauma, including concussion
- Back or neck injuries
- Scrapes, sprains, and bruises
Vehicle Accidents: Vans, buses, and other vehicles transport church members to worship services, and church-related activities. When the driver of a church-owned vehicle is at fault for an accident, you are eligible for compensation if you’re injured.
You’re eligible if you were a passenger in the church vehicle or an occupant of the other car involved in the crash. Most church vehicles are covered by separate auto insurance policies that meet the minimum standards of liability coverage for that state.
Church Board/Administrative Decision: Church directors and board members may be sued for funding decisions, failing to enforce procedures meant to protect others from harm, misappropriation of funds meant for charitable use, and more.
Pastoral Counseling: Not all spiritual counselors are qualified mental health experts. If you’ve been harmed by the negligent acts or omissions of a pastoral counselor, you may be eligible for compensation for your damages.
Volunteer Behavior: Volunteers are representatives of the religious institution. Volunteers interact with members and the public, often by preparing food, visiting sick persons, transporting members to special events, organizing fund drives, and handling money.
The church may be responsible for the harm caused by volunteers who are acting on behalf of the church.
Sexual Misconduct: Any organization that works with children and other vulnerable people has the potential to be accused of sexual abuse. Clergy and religious workers have a legal and moral obligation to protect those entrusted to their care.
Sexual abuse is a heinous crime, particularly when children are involved. Religious organizations have a duty to screen potential clerics, employees, and volunteers who may be in contact with children.
Accusations against a pastor or any other member of the church must be communicated to local law enforcement authorities. Abusers are subject to criminal prosecution. In addition, abuse victims have the right to seek civil compensation for their physical and emotional pain and suffering.
Criminal Activities: Criminals often prey on weak or elderly victims in parking lots. Does your place of worship have lights or other security measures to help visitors get safely to their cars?
If you’ve been robbed or mugged in a church parking lot, you may be eligible to seek compensation from the church’s insurance company. You may also be eligible for state-funded crime victim compensation funds.
Proving the Church is Responsible
Just like owners of any other property, religious institutions have a duty of care to protect worshipers and guests from harm. If the church management fails to take reasonable steps to prevent or correct dangerous situations, the church is then liable, meaning responsible for the injured person’s damages.
This doesn’t mean churches are liable for every injury that happens. It means the church has a duty to protect visitors from accidents that are foreseeable events.
Example: Slip and Fall on Snowy Walkway
A predicted storm dropped three inches of snow during the night, but Sunday morning dawned clear, bright and cold. Emma Jones never missed the 10:00 service. Unfortunately, no one shoveled the church walkway that morning. Ms. Jones slipped and fell on the slippery walk, breaking her wrist and ruining her winter coat.
Because management should have foreseen the walk would be snow covered and slippery, the church is liable for Ms. Jones’ damages.
Slippery sidewalks and parking lots after a snow storm are foreseeable events. It’s up to property owners to take reasonable steps to prevent accidents. Failing to shovel the snow before a scheduled event is negligence. When negligence leads to injuries, the property owner is almost always liable.
Now if Ms. Jones was walking through the sanctuary and tripped over a running toddler, the church may not be liable for her broken wrist. Church management could not have foreseen a running two-year-old crashing into Ms. Jones’ legs.
Example: Church Not Liable for DUI
A trusted church employee was to drive members to a local bake sale. The church thoroughly investigated the driver before he was hired. His driving record was clean, and he had no arrest record or criminal history.
On the day of the bake sale, the driver was drinking heavily before picking up the church members. With a van load of church ladies, the driver veered off the road, crashing into a tree. Several church members were seriously injured, and one died from her injuries. The driver’s blood alcohol level was found to be more than twice the legal limit.
The auto insurance company covering the church van paid the policy limits to the victims. However, the family of the deceased church member filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the church.
The court found the church was not liable for the accident victim’s death. The church had taken reasonable steps to ensure they hired a safe driver, and since the church had no way of knowing about the driver’s intoxication, it was unforeseeable.
To prove a church is liable for your injuries, you’ll need to show:
- A hazardous condition caused your injuries.
- Church management knew or should have foreseen the hazardous condition.
- Church management failed to prevent or correct the hazardous condition.
- The hazardous condition was the direct and proximate cause of your injuries.
- You have verified injuries.
You’ll be able to prove the church is responsible for your injuries by collecting good evidence in support of your claim.
Gathering Evidence of Church Negligence
If you’re injured on the premises of a church, synagogue or other house of worship, or by other church-related negligence, you may have a right to compensation for your damages.
Most religious organizations carry liability insurance, but the insurance company won’t just write you a check. You’ll need to prove the church is at fault for your injuries.
Begin building a strong case as soon as you’re injured:
Report the injury: When you’re injured, tell someone. Don’t feel embarrassed, and whatever you do, don’t leave. Your pastor might be sympathetic, but the insurance company will have a hard time believing your claim if you wait hours or days to report the injury.
If you’re in a church building, there should be someone in attendance, even if it’s not the time for regular services. Ask the person to contact the pastor or administrator. If you think you may be seriously injured, ask the person to call 911.
If you are injured on the property outside of normal hours, such as while visiting the cemetery, seek medical help first. Be sure to tell your medical provider exactly when, where, and how you were injured.
If the pastor resides on the property, you may be able to get help at the parsonage or rectory. Otherwise, you or a family member can contact the church office later to report the accident.
Never refuse or delay medical treatment for your injuries. The insurance company won’t accept an injury claim without medical proof of your injuries.
Get witness statements: Eyewitnesses are very strong links in proving negligence and proximate cause. Family and friends make good witnesses, but independent eyewitnesses are better. Independent witness testimony carries more weight with the insurance adjuster. An independent witness has no personal or financial stake in your claim.
Let’s say you’re a volunteer delivering hot meals to the home-bound. While loading the meals 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 face and hands.
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, should see you get injured, ask them to write down what they saw, and sign and date the statement.
Take pictures and video: Today, most cell phones can take photos and videos. Photographs and videos are excellent ways to document your injury and the reason for it. Use the date and time stamp function, essentially freezing in time the moments surrounding the accident.
For example, if while walking up inside steps, you tripped and fell on torn carpeting, make sure to capture close-ups of the tear in the carpet and to take pictures of the entire area. You can’t have too many detailed images.
If an attendant is available, ask why the carpet isn’t fixed and record the answer.
Verify damages: Copies of your medical records and bills, therapy bills, and receipts for your out-of-pocket expenses are all proof of the type and amount of your damages.
If you missed work, ask your boss to write a letter on company letterhead verifying your lost wages, lost overtime or bonus opportunities, and any vacation or sick time you had to use while recovering from your injury.
Attorneys Win Complex Injury Claims
You probably won’t need an attorney for soft-tissue injuries like bumps, bruises, sprains, or other minor injuries. If you’ve fully recovered after a slip and fall or low-impact car accident, you can negotiate your settlement directly with the insurance company.
Calculate your compensation amount by totaling the cost of your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages. Add one or two times that amount for pain and suffering.
Send a written demand along with copies of all your bills, wage statement, photographs, and other evidence.
We’ve made it easy to with a sample Slip and Fall Injury Demand Letter.
Insurance companies are tough when it comes to expensive claims, even when they represent churches.
When you’ve suffered severe physical injuries from an accident on church property or due to the negligence of church officials, you’ll need a skilled personal injury attorney to handle the claim for you.
Head injuries, spinal cord injuries, severe burns, and other “hard” injuries that have long-term or permanent effects are high-dollar claims.
Some types of serious injury claims may not be covered by insurance. Your only hope of fair compensation may be filing a lawsuit against the religious organization responsible for your physical or psychological damages.
Always discuss the following types of cases with an experienced personal injury attorney:
- Severe physical or psychological injuries
- Sexual abuse by a member of the clergy
- Church misuse of funds
- Abusive or harmful pastoral counseling
Don’t give up on your injury claim. Churches are held to the same legal standards as any other organization.
You’re entitled to confidential legal consultation. It costs nothing to find out what a personal injury attorney can do for you.
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