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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Sixth District: Fremont Church May Be Liable After Parishioner Trips

A Fremont church parishioner on her way to a religious education class tripped over a piece of lumber the pastor inadvertently left in the walkway, and the ministry may be liable for her injuries, an appeals court ruled.

The Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed the decision of a Sandusky County Common Pleas Court and directed the trial court to determine if The Church on 53 maintained its premises safely while it was expanding its facilities and offering classes at the same time.

The Feb. 20 appellate court ruling overturns a grant of summary judgment the trial court issued to Cathedral Ministries in May 2014. That court ruled the Cathedral Ministries, which oversaw the church, did not have an obligation to warn attendees that construction materials may be present on the way to the classroom.

In July 2011, Tonya Turner dropped off her daughter at the church’s day care and made her way to the classroom, which was undergoing additional construction. Pastor Matt Coutcher moved two-by-fours, plywood, and drywall out of the classroom to make room for the class and stacked the materials against a nearby wall. A two-by-four protruded into the walkway and Turner tripped fracturing her right foot. She underwent multiple surgeries to treat the fracture and resulting complications from staph and MRSA infections.

She alleged that she suffered chronic pain that prevented her from working and performing other activities. She filed suit against the church in July 2013, claiming the church was negligent by placing the boards in the entrance way, and failed to warn visitors of the hazardous conditions.

Coutcher testified that he was aware the wood was sticking out into the walkway and conceded that someone making a sharp turn could trip over it. However, he considered the materials to be in an area so far out of the normal walking traffic pattern that it would not be an issue.

Cathedral Ministries moved for summary judgment, arguing it was only liable for injuries if its conduct was willful and wanton, and that the lumber was an open and obvious hazard requiring no obligation for a warning. Relying on the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1990 Provencher v. Ohio Dept. of Transportation decision, and the Sixth District’s own 2010 Madison v. Woodlawn Cemetery ruling, the court determined Turner was a “licensee” and sided with the church. Turner appealed, arguing she was a “business invitee” entitled to a higher standard of protection than a licensee.

Writing for the Sixth District Judge James D. Jensen noted that Ohio law has two sets of standards property owners must follow regarding the safety of premises that others use. A business invitee is one who enters the premises by invitation and “for some purpose which is beneficial to the owner.” A person claiming to be a business invitee must provide evidence showing the property owner received a benefit or encouraged the visitor to use the premises. A licensee is a person who enters another’s property without invitation or objection by the owner, and enters for their own benefit.

Judge Jensen noted that in Provencher, a motorist was injured at a state roadside rest facility and claimed to be a business invitee of the state. She claimed her use of the roadside rest increased the safety on the highway to the benefit of the state. The Supreme Court ruled the economic or tangible benefit to the state was too remote and classified her as a licensee that was not owed additional protection from injury. In Madison, a woman was injured visiting the grave of her deceased uncle, and claimed to be a business invitee of the cemetery. The Sixth District labeled her a licensee as she was not asked to pay for or purchase anything from the cemetery.

Ruling that the trial court could not rely on Provencher or Madison, Judge Jensen indicated the court could find only one other Ohio case of a person injured on church property where there was dispute regarding the visitor’s status. The decision noted seven other cases dealing with injuries on church property, but none were clear the churches were claiming the visitors to be licensees.

In the Second District Court of Appeals’ 1989 Freshwater v. Piqua Baptist Church decision, a teen was invited to attend an overnight youth-group retreat at a church, and was considered an invitee. However, the teen injured herself when she ventured out of the designated area for the function and the court ruled she was a licensee when she went beyond where she was invited to be.

Judge Jensen found Turner’s scenario to be akin to Freshwater in that Turner attended services, classes, and other church-related services at the invitation of the church and donated at times to the weekly collection. While the class Turner was attending was offered to both church members and non-members, participants were required to register for the classes and those signed up were expected to attend.

“Also, while the church may not be engaged in economic transactions in the sense that church attendees pay money and walk away with a product, the church sought to increase participation and expand its congregation and it used these free religion courses as one means of accomplishing this goal,” Judge Jensen wrote.

He noted that Coutcher testified he had grown the church congregation in seven years from 40 members to about 600 members and the growth prompted the construction that led to Coutcher putting the boards in the walkway where Turner tripped.

“We think it is unjust to allow the church to invite and encourage participation in its classes and services, yet avoid responsibility for exercising ordinary care and maintaining the premises in a safe condition to protect those that accept its invitation,” Judge Jensen concluded.

The appeals court directed the trial court to proceed with the case, treating Turner as a business invitee.

Judges Arlene Singer and Stephen A. Yarbrough concurred in the decision.

Turner v. Cathedral Ministries, 2015-Ohio-663
Civil Appeal From: Sandusky County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: Feb. 20, 2015

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