Considering the current trend, trespass on church property has been steadily increasing. Whether your church is accepting of those individuals or not, there are a few things you need to know regarding your liability. First and foremost, your church has the legal duty to implement and maintain measures which reduce the foreseeable risk of harm that may come to others; trespassers or otherwise.
When someone suffers and injury, regardless of whether they are a tenant, contractor, church member, visitor, or trespasser, your church may be liable. Although the Court will take into consideration the reason someone was the property when they were injured, that doesn’t necessarily protect you from trespassers. This is particularly relevant when a dangerous condition is known to exist, but no steps are taken to correct it.
A church owner can be liable if found to be is negligent in the failure to use reasonable care to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. The church must use reasonable care to discover any unsafe conditions and to repair, replace, or give adequate warning of anything that could be reasonably expected to harm others.
In short, State law has well established that a property owner must maintain their property, particularly when it is in their possession and control in a reasonably safe condition.
Third Party Liability:
The responsibility of the church to maintain the safe condition of the property doesn’t stop when they leave for the day or when someone else is in control. The church’s responsibility to maintain the property in reasonably safe condition cannot arbitrarily be delegated to another person. If an independent contractor is employed to perform or complete some project on the property, the church may be responsible for the contractor’s failure to maintain safe conditions as well.
The same can be said for tenants using the church facilities when you are not. The church must take into consideration the likelihood of injury to another, the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk, the location of the land, and the degree of control over the condition. The fact that the tenant was in possession and control at the time of the injury is not by itself sufficient to avoid liability.
California Penal Code 602 states in part that trespassing is to intentionally enter and/or remain on another person’s property without permission, or a legal right. As such, the trespasser needs to know that they are entering private property. Although “No Trespassing” signs are helpful, they are not a requirement to impart knowledge that the property is private. In addition, one can be a trespasser when they are asked to leave, but fail to do so.
Since the church has a responsibility to keep others safe when on the property, that begs the questions of a play yard or equipment used when the church is otherwise closed. The same rule applies in that reasonable precautions must be taken to avoid the risk of harm to others. Since it is not reasonable for the church to have a 24-hour play yard attendant, the equipment should be fenced in, well maintained, labelled private properly, even locked, and still meet the necessary legal requirements.
Just because your church doesn’t own the property doesn’t mean there is no liability. Sometimes a church will use off-site parking such as a neighboring property or a lot across the street. In these type of situations, it comes down to possession and control.
In 2017, a case was decided by the California Supreme Court concerning an individual that was injured while crossing the street from an overflow parking lot. In that instance, the church provided attendants in the parking lot and at the intersection. However, the injured party attempted to cross the street mid-block and was struck by a vehicle.
Here, the Court determined that the church did not owe a duty to the injured party. Although this type of injury was a foreseeable consequence of placing a parking lot across a five-lane highway, the church had not sufficiently “magnified” the dangers in crossing the street. Had the circumstance been different, like the individual being struck in the parking lot, the church could have easy been found liable.
The Court has stated that the duty of care to avoid exposing others to a risk of injury is not limited to injuries that occur on premises owned or controlled by the landowner. Rather, the duty of care encompasses a duty to avoid exposing persons to risks of injury that occur off site if the landowner’s property is maintained in such a manner as to expose persons to an unreasonable risk of injury offsite.
- Actively inspect all areas of the property;
- Correct tripping hazards;
- Install “No Trespassing” signs that meet legal requirements;
- Provide the local police department with a trespasser arrest authorization;
- Provide adequate exterior lighting;
- Accompany individuals to their vehicles
Remember, current California law holds that a person who owns, controls, or possesses land has a duty to maintain and control property with reasonable care. Failure to do so may result in liability if a person who enters the land is injured, even a trespasser.
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Disclaimer: Every situation is different and particular facts may vary thereby changing or altering a possible course of action or conclusion. The information contained herein is intended to be general in nature as laws vary between federal, state, counties, and municipalities and therefore may not apply to any given matter. This information is not intended to be legal advice or relied upon as a legal opinion, course of action, accounting, tax or other professional service. You should consult the proper legal or professional advisor knowledgeable in the area that pertains to your particular situation.