Liability of a North Carolina Church to Its Members for a Fall

In Thompson v. Evergreen Baptist Church, a North Carolina appellate court considered a premises liability case involving a church. The case arose when the plaintiff, a member of a Baptist church for 34 years whose family were also lifelong members, suffered a fall at the church. Her husband was the chairman of the building and grounds committee, as well as the chairman of the deacons of the defendant. The committee was responsible for installing rails at the doors and steps.

In 2012, the plaintiff was at church in the choir loft. While walking down the stairs after a service, she fell and suffered injuries. She sued the church, claiming that the injury was the direct and legal result of the defendant’s negligence and seeking damages. She argued that there weren’t any rails on the steps where she fell, although her husband had acknowledged there were plans to put them up on the steps before his wife fell.

The church answered, arguing that it was not negligent and that the condition of the stairs was open and obvious. It also argued that the plaintiff had contributed to her own fall and that there was an alternative, safer way down to the first floor. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment.

The plaintiff appealed. She argued that the trial court erred in finding the defendant not negligent in a summary judgment proceeding, rather than allowing the matter to go trial. In a negligence lawsuit like this one, the court is only supposed to grant summary judgment if the evidence is not disputed that the defendant failed to use reasonable care and that this failure was a legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

The appellate court explained that there was no dispute about the fall or the injuries, or even that both the plaintiff and the defendant were familiar with those steps as a danger. The dispute was only whether the defendant owed a duty and breached it, foreseeably causing injuries to the plaintiff. The court noted that the husband had testified at deposition that others had fallen on those steps before and that the choir members, who routinely used the stairs, didn’t wear robes because they couldn’t see their feet. The plaintiff argued that since the defendant knew the steps were a hazard, it should have taken measures to protect visitors.

The defendant argued that the plaintiff knew of the danger already. The plaintiff’s husband was part of the committee responsible for renovations like railings. It also argued that each congregant, including the plaintiff, voted on plans to install a railing before she fell. The plaintiff had testified that she knew there was a different stairway that had a railing, but she decided not to go that way because she would’ve needed to get by three people to go out that way.

The appellate court explained that although property owners are supposed to use reasonable care for those they invite onto the property, there isn’t a duty to warn against dangers that are actually known about or that are obvious. The court affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment.

If you were hurt due to a dangerous condition on somebody else’s property, the experienced premises liability attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 888-258-1087 or via our online form.

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