Liability of Church with Respect to Children Playing on its Property – California

Author: LegalEase Solutions 

INTRODUCTION

You have asked us to look into the liability which a Church may have with respect to children playing on its property, both supervised and unsupervised.  Specifically you have asked us to look at:

What liability might the church have in regards to persons, specifically unsupervised children, on the property?

What  liability might the church have in regards to supervised children, on the property?

Is there any special liability to owners of a private playground upon which children play? (as opposed to a public park, etc.)

What types of measures taken by the Church would mitigate liability, i.e. does the church need to have signs, warning of dangers, etc?

DISCUSSION

The client is a Church, which on its premises has a church, school and playground.  Members of the community often drop off their kids at the church, who play on the property, including in the church as well as on the playground.  The children are completely unsupervised, as the church cannot afford to keep the premises staffed at all hours.

The research issue involves two different scenarios:

  1. The liability of the Center with respect to children, who are not students of the school but enter the premises of the Church for the purpose of recreation only
  2. Liability of the Center with respect to children, who are students of the school belonging to the Center and who use the playground during the working hours of the school.
    1. Liability of Church with respect to children who are not students of the school

Addressing the first issue, the law relating to liability for injuries sustained by recreational users of their property is duly covered under the statute, Cal Civ Code § 846 (2005) which provides for the following:

846.  Duty of care or warning to persons entering property for recreation; Effect of permission to enter

An owner of any estate or any other interest in real property, whether possessory or nonpossessory, owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for any recreational purpose or to give any warning of hazardous conditions, uses of, structures, or activities on such premises to persons entering for such purpose, except as provided in this section.

A “recreational purpose,” as used in this section, includes such activities as fishing, hunting, camping, water sports, hiking, spelunking, sport parachuting, riding, including animal riding, snowmobiling, and all other types of vehicular riding, rock collecting, sightseeing, picnicking, nature study, nature contacting, recreational gardening, gleaning, hang gliding, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archaeological, scenic, natural, or scientific sites.

An owner of any estate or any other interest in real property, whether possessory or nonpossessory, who gives permission to another for entry or use for the above purpose upon the premises does not thereby (a) extend any assurance that the premises are safe for such purpose, or (b) constitute the person to whom permission has been granted the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed, or (c) assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by any act of such person to whom permission has been granted except as provided in this section.

This section does not limit the liability which otherwise exists (a) for willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity; or (b) for injury suffered in any case where permission to enter for the above purpose was granted for a consideration other than the consideration, if any, paid to said landowner by the state, or where consideration has been received from others for the same purpose; or (c) to any persons who are expressly invited rather than merely permitted to come upon the premises by the landowner.

Nothing in this section creates a duty of care or ground of liability for injury to person or property.

The above section immunizes private landowners from liability for injuries sustained by recreational users of their property. The Supreme Court of California in Ornelas v. Randolph 4 Cal. 4th 1095; 847 P.2d 560 (1993) settled the principles of statutory construction, that the legislature intended the statutory immunity to include all private property , and gave a broad definition to   the term “recreational purpose”.

 In Ornelas, supra, the plaintiff, an eight year old, together with five other children, was playing on that portion of the property where the farm equipment was stored.  A metal pipe dislodged and fell on plaintiff, who was sitting nearby, causing injuries.   The Plaintiff filed for personal injury against Defendant. The Defendant moved the court for summary judgment on several grounds including Civil Code Section 846. The court of appeal reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Defendant.

The Supreme Court, while discussing the statutory elements of Section 846 held  that the provision establishes limited liability on the part of a private landowner for injuries sustained by another recreational use of the land. The statute provides an exception from the general rule that a private landowner owes a duty of reasonable care to any  person  coming upon the land as established in Rowland v. Christia Cal. 4th 1095; 847 P.2d 560.  The court, further held that under Section 846:

[A]n owner of any estate or other interest in real property owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give recreational users warning of hazards on the property, unless: (1) the landowner willfully or maliciously fails to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity; (2) permission to enter for a recreational purpose is granted for a consideration; or (3) the landowner expressly invites  rather than merely permits the user to come upon the premises.

Id. at 1100.

The landowner’s duty to the nonpaying, uninvited recreational user is, in essence, that owed a trespasser under the common law as it existed prior to Rowland v. Christian, supra, 69 Cal.2d 108; i.e., absent willful or malicious misconduct the landowner is immune from liability for ordinary negligence. Id.

Therefore, it can be concluded that under Section 846, the Church cannot be held liable for the unsupervised children who enter the premises for recreational purpose and use the playground. Nevertheless, the church can definitely impress upon the public to monitor and supervise their minor children entering the premises for the purpose of recreation.

  1. Liability of Church with respect to students of the school

With regard to students of the school who use the playground belonging to the church during working hours and under constant supervision, the liability of the Church varies vastly. The school assumes responsibility for such students and therefore and may be liable for injury to its students.

Under Section 856 of the California Civil Code, supra, it can be concluded that the immunity granted to certain landowners under the statute is not extended to landowners with respect to such  persons or students,

  1. who are granted permission for a consideration other than the consideration, if any, paid to the said landowner
  2. to any persons who are expressly invited rather than merely permitted to come upon the premises by the landowner.

Under the circumstances of this case,  an enrolled student using the playground in  exchange for a fee, was an invitee  to whom the   possessor of the premises would ordinarily owe a duty of due care. Peterson v. San Francisco Community College Dist., 36 Cal. 3d 799, 808-809 (Cal. 1984).   The amount of care due to minors increases with their immaturity and consequent heedlessness to danger. Therefore, a duty may arise where a special relationship of “school – minor student” exists, giving rise to a right to such protection.  The school has inherent control over the playground adjoining its premises and therefore liable for any injury sustained by its students within its premises during the working hours of the school.  Id at 806.

  It has long been recognized that a possessor of land who holds it open to the public for entry for business purposes is subject to liability to members of the public while they are upon the land for such a purpose, for physical harm caused by the accidental, negligent or intentionally harmful acts of third persons and by the failure of the possessor to exercise reasonable care to (a) discover that such acts are being done or are likely to be done, or (b) give a warning adequate to enable the visitors to avoid the harm, or otherwise to protect them against it.  Rest.2d Torts, § 344; Slater v. Alpha Beta Acme Markets, Inc. (1975) 44 Cal.App.3d 274, 278.

Since the students are under the direct control and supervision of the school, the school owes the students a duty of care towards them. Donnell v. California Western School of Law 200 Cal. App. 3d 715 (1988).  Thus, with respect to students of the school, the Church would owe a duty of care towards the students to ensure that that the property is safe for their use and not maintained in a hazardous or negligent fashion.

CONCLUSION

Under Section 846, the Church is immune against liability for injuries sustained by both supervised and unsupervised children, who are not students of the school, entering its premises for the purpose of recreation. With regard to the students of the school using the playground in the same premises, the school authorities may be liable for injuries sustained by the students, since they are using the playground after payment of consideration and therefore would be treated as invitees or business visitors, which precludes immunity provided under Section 846.  The Church should ensure that adequate care is taken over the premises and warnings given for any hazardous conditions on the property.