A tragic injury to a child on the church playground will test the church insurance policy and the character of a court. Courts that will abandon the law in favor of a result are dangerous places. Churches want to be open to the community and the public even though there is no economic benefit from such inclusiveness. But, there are several risks.
In KT v Klein Road Church of God, Miss. App., Slip Op. 2016, a four year old was attending a local 4-H meeting with her mother and brother. Most likely the four year old was not a meeting participant but was on the playground. The four year fell off the swing set but when she landed struck her head on a tree root. The family were not members of the church.
The trial court dismissed the case because as a licensee, i.e., a person with permission to be on the premises, the duty the church owed the child was only to refrain from willfully or wantonly causing injury. If the child had been considered an invitee, the church would have had a higher duty which would include keeping the premises reasonably safe and to warn of hidden dangers that were not open and obvious. The appellate court affirmed the trial court and the case was dismissed.
The appellate court was careful to note that the child and her family were not members of the church. Therefore, because the common law duty of a premises owner did not recognize any intangible benefit to the church from the attendance of the family at the 4-H meeting, the child was not an invitee. At common law, the premises owner must enjoy a tangible benefit from the visitor or the higher duty is not invoked.
While it does not automatically follow that to a church member the church corporate owes the higher duty, it might. Because church grounds and property are typically operated and maintained by volunteers, it is especially difficult to achieve a consistent high level of repair. Also, safety standards guarded by volunteer church leaders with no training or qualifications in maintaining them, year in and year out, will lag because with all of the best intentions time and wear progress. In the internet age, finding an inspector bi-annually to inspect and report would not be burdensome. Most insurers provide such services free or upon referral.