Community use of facilities
Reducing risks of liability claims
What is the issue?
Churches want to be good community members and offer the use of their facilities to outside groups. However, without certain controls, this can create a risk of legal liability even though your organization is not truly at fault (or, you may be at fault but not realize it).
Examples of situations:
A youth sports league, not sponsored by the church, was using the church's athletic facilities. A child was molested by a coach. Since the league did not have insurance, a lawsuit was filed against the church. The claimant may allege that the church has a duty to manage the usage of their facilities.
A "pickup" basketball league used the school gym. A participant was shoved into the wall and suffered extensive damage to his teeth. The group did not have insurance so the church's policy paid the claim.
What can your organization do to reduce the risk?
A prudent organization will provide the following:
- A policy regarding use of your facility by outside groups.
- A written application, including an indemnity waiver, for use of the facility.
- Liability insurance.
- Rules for use of the facility.
- Means of reporting accidents.
Each of these items will be discussed in further detail.
Policy regarding use of the facility
The policy should include priority and eligibility for use, regulations, application procedure, duties of custodian or other person on duty, and responsibilities of user. Legal counsel should review all policies and application forms to ensure that they are not illegally discriminatory and that they comply with state laws, especially if it is a public facility such as a school.
Written application, including an indemnity waiver
All groups who seek to use your premises should complete an application signed by a designated representative from the group. At a minimum, the group should agree to restore to original condition any property that is damaged or to replace any property that is stolen or damaged beyond repair. The applicant should sign that he or she has received and understands the rules for use of the facility.
The application should also have an agreement that the user agrees to indemnify and hold harmless your organization for any claims arising out of use of the property. While this hold harmless agreement may not always hold up in court, it may be helpful in defending your group in a lawsuit.
If a group does not have liability insurance, or the policy limits are low, your organization may end up paying for a liability claim even though the situation creating the claim was not under your control. To protect your organization, require liability insurance and obtain evidence of insurance (a "certificate of insurance") during the application process from any groups which are not sponsored by your organization. The limits of the policy will be determined by the level of risk you are willing to assume. Some entities require a minimum of a million dollars; others designate levels equivalent to their own levels of coverage. The certificate of insurance should also name your organization as an additional insured. This will help ensure that the renting group's insurance is primary and extend some protections of their policy, such as defense costs, to your organization.
Liability insurance is available for one-day events, "pick up" leagues and other informal, short-duration activities. The renting group should check with their local insurance agent. If insurance is not feasible, your organization must determine what level of risk it is willing to assume. Evaluate the loss potential of the group's activity and determine if an exception is allowable, taking care not to discriminate.
Rules for use of the facility
Typically, this includes requirements such as no alcohol or tobacco usage. Require responsible adult supervision of all youth groups. Outside groups should assume all responsibility to keep activities within the agreed upon area. For instance, if a group is using the gymnasium, the custodian should not have to chase after kids running around in other parts of the building. Failure to comply with rules for use should jeopardize the group's future rentals.
Means of reporting accidents
Investigating an accident immediately after it occurs is critical to providing an effective defense. Often a property owner does not know an injury has occurred until the lawsuit is filed. One of the rules for usage should include a requirement to immediately report all accidents to a representative of your organization.
Your organization's responsibility
Organizations must have a good ongoing maintenance and self-inspection program so that facilities are in decent shape for others to use. When persons are invited to come to your premises, the law holds that a reasonable effort must be made to identify and correct any hazards. Thus, if a visitor trips over a poorly maintained sidewalk, your organization may be liable. Documented regular premises inspection can help show that care has been taken.
Making your facility available to community groups can help further your organization's mission and strengthen ties with your community. Preventing or limiting the potential for personal injury and property damage is in the best interest of all parties. The steps in this document provide a foundation and need to be in place for facilities to be used by outside groups.
- The first priority in a personal injury accident is to prevent further injury to the injured party. The second priority is to provide medical attention. If there is any doubt that the injured party may need medical attention, call 911.
- Do not make any statements as to who is to blame for an accident. If not a witness, do not attempt to describe how the accident occurred or what the cause may have been. State your observations. Be as precise as possible.
- When describing the accident area, provide enough details so as to be able to establish where the accident occurred. Take photographs or videotape the accident location and surroundings as soon after the accident as possible.
- Record information that may have a bearing on the role of the injured party in the accident, such as wearing/not wearing glasses, type of footwear worn, carrying objects that may have obstructed their view or compromised their balance.
- If the incident involves some type of a spill, please gather and attach copies of any maintenance logs indicating the cleaning schedule for the area, notations on the last time the area was cleaned, the name of the employee(s) that is responsible for the cleaning work and/or filling out the log and what type of cleaning procedures were used.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be construed as legal advice. Readers should use this article as a tool, along with best judgment and any terms or conditions that apply, to determine appropriate policies and procedures for your church's risk management program.