A woman was seriously injured while descending a set of stairs that lacked a railway after singing in her church choir. When she sued the church for damages, it was undisputed that she fell on the defendant’s stairs and suffered injuries as a result. The question recently before the North Carolina Court of Appeals was whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff and breached that duty, foreseeably resulting in the plaintiff’s injuries.
According to court records in Thompson v. Evergreen Baptist Church, a key issue in this case was the plaintiff’s own knowledge of the potential danger.
The plaintiff was a member of the church for 34 years. Her husband had been a member of the congregation his entire life, and their children and grandchildren were baptized there. At various times, the plaintiff helped with the children’s choir and served as a youth director, a Sunday School teacher, and the Director of Missions. At the time of her fall, she was serving as a youth director. Additionally, she was a regular church attendee, noting she was there any time the church doors were open and she was able to attend.
Her husband served as the chairman of the deacons for the church. At the time of the plaintiff’s fall, he also served as the chairman of the building and grounds committee. This group was responsible for installing railings at all steps and doorways.
On the particular steps in question, there were plans to install railings. Her husband testified in a deposition that people had fallen on those same stairs before. and that was exactly why choir members did not wear robes, since they couldn’t see their feet.
On one day in March 2012, the plaintiff was attending a religious service at the property and was sitting in the choir loft. Following the service, the plaintiff fell on the stairs on the way down. Her injuries were serious. She filed a lawsuit against the church, arguing her injury was the direct and proximate result of negligence by the defendant church. She sought damages for those injuries. She argued specifically there weren’t any railings on the steps, and this posed a foreseeable hazard.
The defendant, however, countered that the dangerous condition of the stairs was open and obvious, and the plaintiff was contributorily negligent for failing to use due care, as well as failing to use a safer alternative route.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant. The plaintiff appealed.
She argued the church knew about the danger prior to the time of her fall, but she did acknowledge there was a safer stairway with a railing nearby. She decided not to use it because she would have had to walk past three people and then the music box to exit that way.
The appellate court ruled the facts of the case were parallel to those of Bolick v. Bon Worth, Inc. In that case, the plaintiff was a customer of a store and, after asking to use the restroom, was directed to the back of the store. Upon exiting the restroom, the plaintiff fell on the wooden steps that led to the restroom, suffering injuries and prompting her to file a premises liability lawsuit. Summary judgment was granted to the defendant because the plaintiff was contributorily negligent as a matter of law. The court held there is no duty to warn or protect against dangers that are known or so obvious that it’s reasonably expected they will be discovered.
The appeals court ruled that in both cases, a property owner doesn’t have a duty to warn of dangers of which a lawful visitor has equal or superior knowledge or that are otherwise common knowledge.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Thompson v. Evergreen Baptist Church, Sept. 20, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center – Slip and Fall Verdict Not Nullified by Juror Misconduct, Sept. 28, 2016, Asheville Premises Liability Lawyer Blog