This January, the Supreme Court in Orange County will hear an unusual case involving a man whose leg was seriously injured by a 600-pound crucifix.
“The case raises interesting legal issues concerning the extent of the church’s liability, as well as whether the plaintiff assumed the risk of injury with his actions,” explained California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis.
The plaintiff in this case is a man named David Jimenez. Jimenez is a 43-year-old Mexican immigrant whose wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008. Jimenez and his wife were devout Catholics and would routinely pull into the parking lot at St. Patrick’s Church in Orange County, New York to pray for his wife. When his wife recovered from cancer, he volunteered to clean the large crucifix that stood outside of the church.
On May 30, 2012, Jimenez was standing on the base of the crucifix cleaning the face of Christ using rags and soapy water. He was holding onto the cross beam to keep his balance. Unfortunately, the crucifix snapped off of its base, sending Jimenez tumbling to the ground. The crucifix then fell onto him, crushing his right leg, resulting in its amputation.
Jimenez has not been able to work since the incident and, although the church raised more than $7,000 for him and his family, he is suing it for damages. The case is scheduled to go to trial in the Supreme Court in Orange County in January 2012. Jimenez is seeking $3 million in damages from the church.
While Jimenez’s attorneys would not discuss specifics of the case, his claim is likely centered on the allegation that there was only a single screw holding up the 600-plus pound crucifix. There was no anchoring system or other supports for the crucifix, which created a significant risk that it could fall.
The church, like any other property owner, must exercise reasonable care to make sure its premises are safe. The level of care required will vary depending upon the status of the person on the property. For example, customers are owed the highest duty of care in a store or retail environment, and property owners or managers must ensure that they inspect the premises regularly and that they warn the customers of dangers or correct the dangers. Those who invite guests onto their property for the mutual benefit of the property owner and guests, such as people who invite friends or neighbors over, owe an intermediate duty of care. They don’t have to inspect for problems with the premises, but they do have to either warn visitors about or correct any obvious or known dangers or dangers that they should have known about.
In this case, it is unclear whether the church could be said to have breached its duty to him or not. Whether the church is responsible will depend upon whether the crucifix presented a danger, the church should have known of the danger, and the church’s negligence directly led to the resulting injury. He was a volunteer and a visitor, and so premises liability laws apply.
There are two key issues in assessing the church’s negligence. The first is whether it knew or should have known that the crucifix presented a danger. The second is whether the church’s negligence was the cause of the injury or whether it could be attributed to Jimenez’s actions.
If the crucifix had fallen on an innocent patron walking into the church, the church’s liability would have been more clear-cut since it seems apparent that it is dangerous to have a 600-pound crucifix supported by only a single screw. In this case, however, Jimenez made the choice to climb up onto the Crucifix and clean it without checking for his own safety.
Jimenez did not, in agreeing to clean the cross, accept the risk of it falling on him, as this was an unforeseen risk. However, he did perhaps behave carelessly in such a way that he created or exacerbated the risk of harm. Because Jimenez made some potentially risky choices in his own actions by climbing up and hanging on to a cross beam, it is possible he will be considered at least partially at fault for the injuries. The church, too, may be considered partially at fault. Under New York’s comparative negligence rules, this means the church could be required to pay a portion of Jimenez’s damages equal to the percentage of fault that is attributed to its negligence, while Jimenez could go uncompensated for the percentage of fault that is attributed to his own actions.
Whether the church should have known of the dangers and warned Jimenez is a question of fact that will have to be decided in the upcoming Orange County case.
Additional articles on issues concerning civil law are available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.
If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with a California personal injury lawyer, feel free to call 1-888-834 5055.