Not a Stairway to Heaven: Churchgoer Trips on Church Steps

Carla Boutin brought a negligence action against the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, St. Joseph Catholic Church, and their insurer, Catholic Mutual Group, for injuries sustained as a result of falling down a set of stairs while exiting a church.   She claimed that the surface near the church stairs was uneven, causing her to trip and fall. The trial court rejected Ms. Boutin’s arguments and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The appellate court affirmed and held that the plaintiff could not establish that a defect existed in the steps that posed an unreasonable risk of harm, nor could she establish that the defendants knew or should have known about the defect prior to the incident.

Under Louisiana law, a person alleging the negligence or strict liability of a building owner must prove: (1) the property presented an unreasonable risk of harm; (2) the building owner knew or should have known of the defect; and (3) the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care and the owner failed to exercise such reasonable care. To prove the second element, a person must establish that the building owner either knew of the defect or through the exercise of ordinary care and diligence should have been aware of the defect that gave rise to the injury. In this case, Ms. Boutin failed to prove that the stairs presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The appellate court noted that photographs reflecting the condition of the steps established that they were not broken, missing, slanted, or uneven.   Moreover, affidavits from two church officials responsible for the maintenance and care of the building established that the defendants were not aware of any alleged defect in the steps. Ms. Boutin on the other hand failed to offer any factual evidence in support of her claim. In light of these facts, the court concluded that even if the stairs presented an unreasonable risk of harm, “there is no reason to conclude that such defect, which is not discernable from the photographs, should have been discovered by the defendants by reasonable inspection."

Take-Away: Although building owners are only responsible for a defect in their premises if they knew or should have known of the defect at the time of the accident, in order to minimize personal injury claims arising out of a fall on the premises, owners should carefully monitor the condition of their property and remedy any defects that may manifest themselves.

This article was co-authored by David Moore, Jr., a 2015 summer associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.

Stairway to Court: What Would a Reasonable Person Do?

In Young v. Guide One Ins. Co., a woman slipped and fell while attending a funeral, failing to notice a semicircular step down from the sanctuary to the reception room. She sued the church and its insurer, and at trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants, finding that the step down did not have a defect that created an unreasonable risk of harm (pdf). 

At trial, the plaintiff and fact witnesses presented conflicting evidence regarding the lighting in the area of the fall, with the plaintiff and her relatives testifying that the lighting was dark or dim and the disinterested witnesses testifying that the area was well lit. The plaintiff also admitted that she did not look where she was stepping when she opened the door to the recreation room. The only expert, called by the plaintiff, testified that the church did not meet the requirements of the Life Safety Code, although he admitted that he did not know if the church was old enough to fall within the grace period. He further testified that he was unsure whether the code even applied to religious facilities.

On appeal, the First Circuit held that in order to establish liability based on ownership or custody of a thing, a plaintiff must show the following:

  1. the defendant was the owner or custodian of a thing which caused the damage;
  2. the thing had a ruin, vice or defect that created an unreasonable risk of harm;
  3. the ruin, vice or defect of the thing caused the damage;
  4. the defendant knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the ruin, vice or defect;
  5. the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care; and
  6. the defendant failed to exercise such reasonable care.

The determinative issue in this case was whether the step had a defect which presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The court held that the degree to which a potential victim may observe a danger is a factor in determining whether the condition is unreasonably dangerous, and a landowner is not liable for an injury which results from an open and obvious condition. Based on this analysis, the First Circuit held that it could not say that the jury was “clearly wrong” in finding that the step down was not a defect that presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The court affirmed the trial court judgment in favor of the church and its insurer.

Take-Away:  The plaintiff carries the burden of proving the existence of an unreasonably dangerous condition when claiming Landowner liability. When a condition is open and obvious, a jury’s determination of no liability will rarely be reversed.