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Man Hurts Back Doing Baptisms; Sues the Church

By Raul Rivera

Did you know that the fastest growing type of lawsuit against churches involves people suing churches for injuries that occur while serving at the church or while responding to an altar call?  At our conferences we take time to discuss real-life examples and how to better prepare your church to minimize and even prevent similar situations from happening.  Does a church have a legal responsibility to protect worshippers from injury?  Chances are, you have probably not thought about it with much detail.  What I mean is, "Have you ever pondered the possibilities of physical injuries that can happen at church during praise and worship, altar calls, or greeting time?"  What is the church's responsibility if someone goes wild in a service, resulting in injury to others or to himself/herself?  What if someone slips a disc conducting a baptism?  Or what about the liability risks involved in Sunrise Easter services held off the church property?  What if a perfect stranger attends and then claims he was injured while in attendance?  Can the church be held responsible for his injuries? 

People suing churches for almost anything

One man in North Carolina sued his church after performing many baptisms during a Sunday service because he woke up the next day with back pain that resulted in a severely herniated disk.  He claimed that the church should have told him that "the repetitive motion required for performing baptisms . . . could cause serious damage . . ."

In another case, a woman serving as a greeter in a church service in Louisiana claimed that "the Spirit of the Holy Ghost began to cause her to dance and shout in the Spirit of Praise."  While she was dancing and praising she lost her balance and hit the floor before any of the church's ushers could reach her.  The fall resulted in an injury to her arm for which she filed a suit against the church, seeking damages for personal injury and loss of consortium.

What if the youth group goes on a trip and one of the youth gets injured?  To what degree is the church's action to protect the youth considered reasonable?  A mother successfully sued a church in Tampa, FL for 4.5 million when her son was injured in a ski accident.   

The legal relationship between the church and worshippers

There is a legal relationship between the church and the worshippers that attend.  It is a relationship created by facts and circumstances that are often times difficult to define.  There is no legislative handbook to follow.  Common sense and good leadership go a long way in reducing the chances of injury to someone attending a church function.  While you cannot plan for every potential circumstance, let me give you three indicators that you need to perceive that define a legal duty to protect worshippers:

  • Special relationship:  Is there a special relationship between the church and the person in attendance?  In Beaudrie v Henderson, the court ruled that there is generally no duty that obligates one person to aid or protect another unless there is a special relationship between them or some special circumstance.  You have to define or know whether there is a special relationship or circumstance that obligates the church to not only create a safe environment but also provide protection from injury.  

    The common argument used in lawsuits where the person is "slain in the Spirit" and hits his/her head on the floor, relies on a court ruling in Dykema v Gus Macker Enterprises.  This case is important because in essence you must ascertain if the worshipper "reasonably entrusted himself to the control and protection of the church, with a consequent loss of control to protect himself."  See the third bullet point below.
  • Likeliness of injury:  This one is a little less grey than the special relationship.  In this case, the church must use common sense to detect the potential of harm that an event or certain approved church function can cause.  One example on the rise in charismatic circles is the act of very expressive worship that at times results in people running, jumping, dancing, tripping, and stumbling over each other.  While we do not want to quell freedom of expressive worship, serious injury is much more likely to occur in this environment.  Churches need to ensure that proper personnel are trained to look for potential collisions and accidents and to make their best efforts to intervene.
  • Caution on what you say:  In the case where a Michigan woman sued her church for letting her bump her head during an altar call, she presented evidence to the court from a sermon that was recorded.  When the pastor made the altar call, he told the congregation not to fear being slain in the Spirit because the church trains their ushers to catch people if it happens.  This special circumstance bound the church to legally protect her from injury while responding to the altar call because of what the pastor said through the pulpit. The argument lies in what the pastor said.  He announced that the ushers were there for the worshippers' protection, to entice or increase the number of people who would respond to the altar call.  Because of that announcement, she no longer had control or ability to provide her own protection.

What to do today to prevent major loss

As I mentioned earlier, your church cannot plan for every possibility.  However, it can do certain things today to reduce the chances of someone getting injured in service, and it can also prepare an asset protection strategy to mitigate loss if it were to get sued.   Below is a list of three things you can do.

  1. Create an altar ministry policy:  Like it or not, not everyone that responds to an altar call has good intentions.  Your ushers should be trained on how, when, and where to lay hands, catch, communicate, manage people traffic, address modesty issues, and handle emergencies.  This policy alone can save your church from a potentially disastrous lawsuit.  AT STARTCHURCH WE HAVE AUTHORED SUCH A POLICY.  We are giving it away free of charge to anyone who registers for and attends one of our conferences.  
  2. Get a good liability insurance policy that covers the right people:  The number of churches and ministries that do not have an insurance policy of any kind is a surprise in itself.  Though many pastors know of the real possibilities that exist in today's litigious society, they see insurance as an expense that brings no benefit.  I see it differently.  It is an asset, because it protects the wealth and prosperity of the church.  When getting a general liability insurance policy, make sure that the policy covers the board of directors, employees, and church volunteers, including members.  
  3. Create a holdings corporation:  A little known section of the law exists that was specifically created by Congress to allow nonprofit organizations and churches to protect their assets.  A holdings corporation is created under section 501(c)(2).  It is a corporation that is created, controlled, and owned by the church.  Its only purpose is to hold title to the church's real property.  The holdings corporation does not do business with the outside world and therefore cannot be sued.  Because the church's real property is now in the name of the holdings corporation, if the church ever got sued, it could not lose its real property because the church technically does not own it.  The great thing about a holdings corporation is that the IRS recognizes it as a tax-exempt organization and you can still enjoy the property tax exemption.  if you need help setting one up, please call us at 770-638-3444.

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