Church Successfully Defends Personal Injury Lawsuit from Volunteer

Authored by Philip A.S. Milley, Associate Director, Legal Affairs

All churches at some point require renovations and general maintenance. Many churches wishing to spruce up their premises or cover up tired otherwise outdated paint colours enlist volunteer congregants to do the work. Congregants are generally eager to lend a hand to get the work done so the charity’s money doesn’t have to be spent on labour.

However, little thought is generally given to the likelihood of injury or the resulting difficulties a congregation may face. Unfortunately, injuries can and do happen, which is precisely what happened in the recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice case Baltadijian v The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation for the Diocese of Alexandria, 2017 ONSC 61. In this case, the defendant church (the “Church”) sought volunteers to paint the interior walls of the church. The painting involved the use of ladders. The plaintiff, Hrant Baltadjian, volunteered to paint.

Mr. Baltadjian fell from an eight-foot ladder, suffering a head injury, which resulted in him suffering a coma for a period of 25 days. He was not wearing a safety hat, safety shoes, or fall arrest equipment. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Baltadjian had no recollection of the fall, and there were no witnesses to the incident.

Interestingly, the judge granted the motion for summary judgment, which dismissed Mr. Baltadjian’s case on the basis that he failed to establish that the Church was negligent or that it had breached its obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. A significant factor leading to this conclusion was that Mr. Baltadjian fell while he voluntarily attempted to install a twenty-four-inch piece of quarter round at the ceiling. This activity was not requested by the Church and, in fact, was discouraged by a supervisor that wanted the volunteers to focus on painting. Mr. Baltadjian insisted and voluntarily continued with the repair.

In coming to the conclusion to dismiss the claim, the judge considered the following factors relevant to dismissing the action:

  • The Church provided a stable ladder and a flat and stable working surface.
  • The Church provided appropriate instruction and specific instruction regarding proper safety expectations.
  • The Church had a knowledgeable volunteer who supervised the other volunteers.
  • Mr. Baltadjian used the ladder several times over the course of several weeks.
  • Mr. Baltadjian did not ask for assistance or ground support at any time.
  • The Church maintained general compliance observation and monitoring expectations.
  • Mr. Baltadjianwas injured undertaking a voluntary repair.
  • The Church supervisor was not in a position of authority over Mr. Baltadjian.
  • Mr. Baltadjian was not wearing a hard hat, boots, or fall protection.
  • Fall protection was not a requirement under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) for work on an eight-foot ladder.
  • The Church did not breach the OHSA provisions, which is an indicator of a reasonably safe environment.
What this means for Charities

This case is a good reminder that significant injury can follow from apparently innocuous circumstances. While this case does not change or update anything in the law regarding negligence, occupier’s liability or occupational health and safety obligations, it is significant because the church was not found liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. It is also interesting that the judge emphasized the unfortunate situation the volunteer found himself in. Even so, as the judge put it, “sympathy cannot overrule principle.”

Often it can feel like no matter what precautions your organization takes, liability is bound to follow. This is an example otherwise. While the considerations referred to by the court cannot and should not be used as a check-list for churches and charities wanting to insulate themselves from liability from potential injuries, charities should take note of the lesson that proper instruction and preparation, along with sound equipment and oversight, can go a long way to demonstrate that an organization has met the requisite standard of care. Churches should not be encouraged to provide competent instruction, preparation, sound equipment, and oversight to volunteers out of fear of liability, rather they should be eager to provide the safest environment possible for their staff and volunteers to operate.

Noteworthy is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Every organization’s circumstances are unique. Before acting on the basis of information contained in this blog, readers should consult with a qualified lawyer for advice specific to their situation.