Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Trial Court in Premises Liability Action Against Church

When it comes to negligence, not even a church is beyond the reach of the law. In a recent case brought before the Georgia Court of Appeals, Henderson v. St. Paul Baptist Church, the court needed to determine whether the district court had properly granted summary judgment in favor of St. Paul Baptist Church, which had been sued in a premises liability action. Although the trial court had originally granted summary judgment in favor of St. Paul, the appellate court reversed, finding that questions of material fact existed, which precluded granting the motion for summary judgment.
The plaintiffs in this action were visiting pastors to St. Paul who were invited by the lead pastor to conduct a revival service. Upon arriving at the church, where there is no designated parking area, the plaintiffs saw the lead pastor, who motioned to them and indicated that they should park behind his car, which was situated next to recently planted shrubbery. The plaintiffs parked behind the lead pastor’s vehicle. While exiting the vehicle, one of the plaintiffs noticed that the ground between the shrubs and the car was entirely covered in pine straw. Although the ground was concealed, the plaintiff nonetheless decided to exit the vehicle because she had just seen the lead pastor and his wife exit their vehicle without injury. After walking only a few steps, the plaintiff fell into a trench that was obscured by the pine straw and had been dug only a month earlier in order to keep the newly planted shrubs hydrated. As a result of her fall, the plaintiff suffered a spiral fracture of her leg.
Following the accident, the plaintiffs, the injured visiting pastor and her husband, the other visiting pastor, brought premises liability and loss of consortium claims against St. Paul. After discovery, St. Paul moved for summary judgment, arguing that the church could not as a matter of law be held liable because the injured plaintiff had deviated from the designated route to the front of the church and, instead, fell while taking a shortcut through a flower bed to a side entrance. The trial court agreed with this view of the facts and granted the motion for summary judgment. The appeals court, however, disagreed and unanimously reversed.

First, the court reviewed the shifting burden standard that applies under Georgia law when determining whether to grant summary judgment in a premises liability action. Applying this standard, the court determined that, given testimony of the lead pastor admitting that he was aware of the trench, that a rational trier-of-fact could determine that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard that caused the injury. Accordingly, the burden then shifted to St. Paul to provide evidence demonstrating that either voluntary or causal negligence on the part of the plaintiff led to her injury. Although St. Paul stated that the pine straw did not extend far beyond the bushes and argued that the injured plaintiff could have avoided stepping directly on the pine straw while exiting the vehicle, the court noted that this conflicted with the plaintiff’s testimony that the entire area was covered in pine straw at the time of the accident. Accordingly, the court determined that there was a question of material fact regarding the plaintiff’s negligence. Although St. Paul alternatively argued that the plaintiffs were negligent by parking near the shrubs rather than across the street, where they had ordinarily parked in the past, the court noted that the plaintiffs had been directed to park in that area by the lead pastor and that a plaintiff can typically create a question of material fact when his or her alleged negligence is a result of the conduct of the defendant or conditions under the defendant’s control. See Am. Multi-Cinema v. Brown, 285 Ga. 442, 444-45 (679 SE2d 25) (2009). Thus, the court determined that questions of material fact precluding summary judgment existed.
Although the idea of suing a church can seem unseemly, the law states that every “owner or occupier of land has a legal duty, enforceable by lawsuit, to exercise ordinary care to keep and maintain its premises and the approaches in a condition that does not pose an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to the invited public.” Brown, 285 Ga. 442 (679 SE2d 25) (2009). Accordingly, if you’ve been injured on property that has been negligently maintained, you should not feel any reservation about seeking possible recovery for your injuries. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have many years of experience in this area of the law and can provide the zealous representation your case demands. Feel free to contact us for a free case consultation. We look forward to hearing your story.
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