Trip and Falls: Who Do We Need to Protect, and How?

It happens all too often. In the middle of bible study the Church Elder is called away to assist a parishioner’s guest who has fallen on the church’s property. Whatever the cause of the fall, if the guest is hurt, chances are there will soon be a demand letter from an attorney blaming the church for the injury and seeking money damages. Is the church responsible to protect the guest? And if so, what are some good practice guidelines that can help avoid future falls?

During the hours when the religious organization is open to the public, the organization must exercise “reasonable care” to protect attendees from dangers that are known, or that should have been known, to exist on the property. The raised root in the parking lot that has been there for many months and that has caused parishioners to trip before should be removed immediately. The same goes for the large pothole in the parking lot, or the visible air vent leak; both conditions are known, or should be known to the organization, and must be remedied quickly.

What is reasonable care? Reasonable care is what a reasonable person would do under the circumstances to fix the danger. A reasonable person removes the root, fills the pothole and fixes the leak as soon as she identifies the danger.

Good practice dictates that a religious organization designate a person, or persons, who are responsible for ensuring the property is safe. Set clear policies for how that person or persons inspect the property on a regular basis, and how identified dangers are fixed. A slow leak from a pipe that is causing a carpet to become damp and slippery may not be obvious to the casual observer. But a regular inspection of the carpet will reveal this dangerous condition and allow the organization to fix the danger before an injury occurs. Remember, even though a dangerous condition might not be open and obvious to the organization, if the danger would have been known to the organization through a careful inspection, the organization will be responsible for injuries resulting from the danger. Routine property inspections will prevent hidden dangers from lingering, and should substantially reduce (if not eliminate) the number of avoidable falls.

Once the organization has a policy in place for regular inspections, make sure the policy is followed. A policy that requires routine inspections is useless if inspections do not timely take place. Attorneys bringing a claim on behalf of an injured guest will capitalize on an organization’s failure to follow its own policies.

Attention to the condition of a religious organization’s property, coupled with a timely response to located dangers, will substantially reduce exposures to the organization.