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Court Rules Church Can Get Sued for What Other Groups Do

By Raul Rivera

When a church decides to offer its space for a single-day event organized by an outside group, careful steps must be taken to minimize legal risks in case of an incident. Crafting a comprehensive Facilities Use Agreement is crucial; however, it's equally critical for the church to adhere strictly to every clause within the agreement. To avoid any potential liability, the church must ensure it does not deviate from the agreed terms, especially concerning supervision and control. Below is a fact-based story derived from a court case that illustrates the best way to allow an outside group to use your church facilities.

The Example Story

An incident at an event sponsored by an outside group became the focal point of a legal dispute. The Outside Group used a church for an annual celebration, and it was agreed that the church would not oversee or control the event. The event would have gone without a hitch, but unfortunately, an accident occurred.

Jane Doe, an attendee at the celebration, suffered an injury when she tripped over some disassembled furniture. She filed a lawsuit against both the Outside Group and Church XYZ. The Church contends it owed no duty to Jane Doe because;

  1. It did not put on the event.

  2. The outside group was not affiliated with the church.

  3. The outside group was allowed to use the church facilities free of charge as a courtesy.

  4. The outside group was responsible for cleaning up after the celebration.

  5. The church did not retain control over the premises during the event.

However, the presence of the church’s janitor and church volunteers who were actively involved in the event told a different story. They helped to arrange and disassemble furniture, actions that suggested oversight and involvement contrary to the church’s argument. Jane Doe's legal team argued that this contradiction between the agreement and the church’s actions on the ground meant that the church had not fully disconnected itself from the event’s proceedings.

The court found merit in Jane Doe's argument. The contradiction between the church's hands-off stance in the agreement and its actual on-site involvement led the court to rule that Church XYZ had indeed exercised a degree of control over the event. This was enough for the court to rule that Jane Doe could sue the church.

In the end, the church's intention to distance itself from the event’s responsibilities, as outlined in the contract, was undermined by its actions. The case is a compelling reminder that even the most robust agreement cannot always protect against liabilities if the practical application does not align with the written words in the agreement. Church XYZ's learning curve in this legal dispute was costly.

A Facilities Use Agreement

From this example, we can learn that allowing an outside group to use the church’s facilities can be a win for the church if the church enters into an agreement that, at a minimum, contains three provisions, as shown below.

  1. Make sure that you sign a Facilities Use Agreement and not a lease. The agreement should state that the church grants a revocable, non-exclusive license to use the specified Church property.

  2. The agreement should have a Hold Harmless and Indemnification clause.

  3. The outside group should acknowledge that the Church does not provide any supervision or control over the Property during its use by the Licensee.

If you’re looking to create a safe and clear arrangement for using church facilities, I include a free sample Facilities Use Agreement. While it is basic in nature, it includes the essential points we’ve talked about and several others; just click here.

Conclusion

The experience of Church XYZ is a reminder to all churches lending out their spaces. The real effectiveness of any Facilities Use Agreement is in its actual application and not just in its careful drafting. This situation demonstrated that even with a clear agreement, discrepancies between agreed terms and actual practices can still lead to legal challenges. Hence, it's important for churches to abstain from involvement during third-party events as outlined in the terms of the agreement, which can effectively reduce the risk of litigation arising from accidents on their property. To learn more, contact us at 770-638-3444 today!

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  1. St. Casimir Church v. Frankiewicz, 563 N.E.2d 1331, 1333 (Ind. Ct. App. 1990)

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