Getting out to nature together is a great way to strength bonds between the members of a religious community. A church that is thinking about sponsoring “official” outings, like hikes or camping trips, should take the time to examine how the church’s involvement as an organizer could expose it to legal liability if someone should be injured at the campground or on the trail.
Although we don’t want to discourage people from going outside—far from it!—the truth is that outdoors adventures do involve a degree of injury risk. Hikers can suffer twisted ankles and falls. Someone might be burned by a campfire, fall out of a tree they are climbing, or get bitten by a rattlesnake. If someone’s injuries result in significant costs or death, a personal injury attorney might get involved and start looking for sources of compensation.
One reason a church might find itself in the litigation crosshairs is if an injury happened where other potential defendants are protected by statute or offer plaintiffs little chance of success. For example, in California governmental entities are not responsible for most injuries suffered by people using public lands for recreation. A private owner or operator of a campground may require users to waive their right to sue as a condition of using the site.
There are a few simple steps a church can take to keep its potential liability under control:
- Insurance. Having good insurance is important in every circumstance. It protects the church as well as anyone who gets hurt. Before organizing outdoors activities, make sure your church’s liability insurance will cover it.
- Ask for waivers. Participants could be asked to sign waivers of liability to offer the church an added layer of protection. This step is especially important if children will be present. Handled correctly, waivers need not create a feeling of antagonism between churchgoers and the church.
- Train staff. One way a church can reduce its potential liability is by giving staff basic training in first aid. Responding appropriately to an injury can reduce its severity and reduce the possibility that the church will face a claim that it mishandled an injury.
- Be prepared. Having a supply of first aid basics, as well as medications to address things like allergic reactions to bee stings, is a good policy.
The Church Law Center of California counsels churches and secular nonprofits. We are available to answer your questions about risk management and good governance practices. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or through our contact page.