What Exactly Are the Premises of a Church?; Henderson v. New Wineskin Ministries Corporation

Indiana has enacted statutes that deal with premises liability for nonprofit religious organizations. But the statute does not define what the “premises” of such an organization is. Instead, that was the task of the Court in this case.

Henderson drove to New Wineskin Church one morning for services. There were about 2 inches of snow on the ground that snowy morning, and Henderson knew that parking lots and roads could be slippery. When she arrived at church, Henderson parked in the parking lot and got out of her car. After two steps, she slipped and fell, injuring her shoulder, back, and neck.

Henderson sued New Wineskin for premises liability, and New Wineskin moved for summary judgment, arguing there was no genuine issue of material fact as to the breach of any statutory duty laid out in IC § 34-31-7-2. That statute describes the duties owed when someone “enter[s] premises owned, operated, or controlled by the nonprofit religious organization and used primarily for worship services,” and limits those duties to warning of hidden dangers and refraining from intentionally harming people. The trial court granted New Wineskin’s motion, and Henderson appealed.

Henderson argued that “premises” as used in this section meant a part of a building. Indeed, this is the meaning given the term in the very next statutory section. But the Court disagreed.

Henderson argues the language in Section 34-31-7-2—specifically the word “enters” and the phrase “used primarily for worship services”—does not apply to a parking lot and therefore the statute did not mean for parking lots to be considered part of the premises. But Henderson does not explain why one could not “enter” a parking lot. And while it appears worship services were not conducted in the parking lot, the premises as a whole were used primarily for worship services, which is all that is required under the statute.

As for the neighboring statutory section, the definition of premises in that section was expressly limited to that section, which led the Court to believe that it did not apply to this section.

This left the Court with the plain meaning of the word “premises.” And the dictionary definition of that word meant both a building “along with its grounds.” Thus, the parking lot was part of the premises of the church.

Lessons:
1. Indiana limits the duties churches owe to those attending services on church premises to warning against hidden dangers and refraining from intentional harm.
2. The premises of a church include both the building and the grounds around that building, such as a parking lot.

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