It’s a cautionary tale that Jonathan Norton likes to tell customers. Not to scare them, but to give them a reason to listen and take action. Norton is an agent with American Church Group of Utah. The story he tells takes place at a church in his area. One icy evening, the church rented out space to an unaffiliated group for a meeting. When Norton got the call that someone fell in the parking lot, he started to jot down notes. After inquiring about the person’s condition and details of the fall, he asked, “Did you salt the entryway? Did the group sign a facilities agreement? Did they give you a certificate of insurance?”
The answer was no — to all of it — leaving the church potentially vulnerable.
Incidences of slip and falls are common. Most are accidents: someone trips on their own feet, gets off-balance on a ladder, slips in an entryway.
But some injuries can come back on your organization to try to prove some sort of fault, such as negligence. And with negligence, a lawsuit can drive up the cost of an injury. Lapses in maintenance, failing to clear snow from sidewalks, leaving youth unsupervised — all can take a toll on ministry finances.
“There is an antidote to negligence,” said Thad Ford, senior claims adjuster with Brotherhood Mutual. “It’s risk assessment and risk control.” Risk assessment is knowing where you have vulnerabilities. Risk control is what you do to correct the issues.
And they’re not just concepts. Doing your best to protect your ministry and its people have actual benefits beyond the obvious. These actions help your ministry defend itself in a lawsuit. When you know you have a risk, like a baptismal, risk assessment considers what can go wrong and risk control counters it with layers of safety: non-slip mats, treads on the steps, and side railings.
Ford cautions against temporary fixes of a known issue. “Do what you can to fix it. Don’t go for half measures,” he said. An injured person may try to claim negligence if the ministry knew about a safety issue and did nothing about it. Any actions you take—or don’t take—may form a picture of your ministry’s level of commitment to safety. “You need to show that at least you tried.”
Most general liability policies have something called med pay or medical payments coverage, and it’s injury protection that’s included in your policy. When someone falls on your property, med pay kicks in to help with medical bills or deductibles. It’s no-fault coverage, meaning there’s no blame or admission of guilt attached to the payment for either the ministry or the injured person.
Ford says that some ministries are afraid to file a med pay claim; they don’t want the claim “on their insurance record.” Ford explains that sort of belief can come back to hurt the ministry. “Offering med pay is a proactive step that actually can help a ministry avoid costly litigation. It’s a way to keep good relations with your attendees and guests.”
The other benefit to med pay is that it pays first before any Medicare payments.* “If you have a lot of elderly in your congregation, talk to your agent about your limit,” said Ford. And file your claim right away. “Insurance carriers have reporting requirements associated with Medicare. There’s things we must do right away that are crucial.”
For Norton’s customer, having the outside group sign a facilities use agreement is good risk control. “We don’t want insurance to be a roadblock to doing ministry, but the agreement is a simple step that doesn’t take up too much time,” said Norton. Even though this group was unaffiliated with the church and the fall was a simple accident, the group insisted the church cover the medical bills.
By performing a risk assessment analysis, the church could have found where they were vulnerable and beefed up their risk control for facility rentals. “The silver lining is that now all of my customers learn from this one church. That’s a blessing in disguise.”
EXAMPLE OF RISK CONTROL
A guest falls in your parking lot on a frosty winter morning. The person suffers a knee injury that requires surgery and physical therapy. The fall was simply an accident—no one’s fault, and your med pay policy kicks in up to the limit of $5,000.* Even so, your ministry receives notice of a lawsuit.
You already have a good defense. Because your maintenance staff documents all its work, you can show that the lot and sidewalks were salted two hours before the service. Your parking blocks are highlighted with bright yellow paint. Your safety team responded and filled out an injury report (see below) and included statements from the injured person and witnesses. The team took photos of the scene at the time of the accident, including the person’s shoes. Good risk control prepares you to respond well to an incident. Thorough documentation shows you make safety a priority.
Be a visitor. Walk around your property like you’ve never been there, at various times of day. For example, glare from a rising sun can obscure a step. Observe how people move about. Do attendees cut through grass? Use side doors you didn’t intend as entrances? Brainstorm how you can increase safety in some areas and limit access in others.
Paint. Paint concrete parking bumpers bright yellow to increase visibility. Paint a yellow strip on step and curb edges. Check with your local street department for any applicable code requirements before painting.
Check, repair, and install rails. Test the stability of stair railings, inside and out. Tighten up if loose. You may need to install a railing in the middle of wider steps, like those leading up to your front doors. Check with your local building department for any applicable code requirements before starting.
Invest in non-slip mats + caution signs. Place non-slip mats around your baptismal. If the newly baptized walk from the baptismal to a side room or bathroom, install mats the entire length. When an entrance area is wet from attendees tracking in rain or snow, place caution signs in the vicinity.
Create a maintenance log. It’s important to show consistency. Develop protocols for how you document maintenance, like the date and time you cleared sidewalks of snow or plowed lots.
A timely injury report does three things: it shows you are proactive in taking care of attendees, preserves the scene, and reduces fear. An injury report is a snapshot — a facts-only document that:
Creates a written record at the time of the injury.
Preserves unvarnished statements from the injured person and witnesses.
Lists physical symptoms that can help medical personnel determine treatment.
Helps law enforcement with an investigation in cases of abuse or neglect.
Speeds up the claims process and helps fulfill a timely Medicare filing.
A responding safety team member or staff member should complete the form. The more details, the better. Investigators rely on injury reports to begin the claims process. If possible, ask the injured person open-ended questions, like “how did you fall?” and “were you carrying something?”
Ask witnesses similar questions, like “what did you observe?” and “what did the injured person tell you?” Try to write down the person’s exact response.
The following information also is crucial:
Physical attributes: Does the person use a walker or cane?
Familiarity: Is the person a regular attendee or a first-time guest? Did the person leave the same way he or she came in? Did the person enter a restricted area?
Environmental: Were the sidewalks wet from rain? Was it snowy, foggy, or dark when the injury took place?
Make it visual. Take photos or video at the time of or right after the injury for two reasons. First, it records the actual scene where the injury took place. A good litigator can argue that the injury took place elsewhere, where it’s easier to prove negligence. Second, it gives you the opportunity to physically inspect the area and consider if safety is an issue.
*All coverage decisions and payment terms are subject to their terms, conditions, coverage limits, limitations, and exclusions. For precise detail of coverages and payment terms, please refer to actual policy forms.
Posted January 2022
The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.
Thank you for your interest in Brotherhood Mutual. We appreciate the opportunity to provide your church or other ministry with an insurance quote and will reply to your request as soon as possible.
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