Appeals panel finds for church in snowy parking lot slip-and-fall case

A woman injured after slipping in an icy church parking lot could not convince the Indiana Court of Appeals that her fall was caused by a hidden danger and that her negligence suit was wrongly decided.

During a snowy January morning in 2017, Paula Henderson and her son drove to attend a church service at New Wineskin in Indianapolis. Henderson parked in a handicapped spot in the church’s parking lot, which had not been treated and was covered in snow and ice.

Although her son warned her that the ground was slippery, Henderson stepped out of the car and took a few steps, quickly falling and injuring her back, shoulders and neck. A year went by before Henderson sued the church for negligence, and another two years passed before New Wineskin moved for summary judgment.

The church contended that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to the breach of any statutory duty laid out in Indiana Code Section 34-31-7-2. Following a hearing, the Marion Superior Court granted New Wineskin’s motion, finding no breach occurred under the statute because Henderson was aware of the snow and ice in the parking lot before she fell.

On appeal, Henderson argued that Section 34-31-7-2 does not apply because a parking lot is not part of the “premises” as envisioned under the statute. Instead, she contended that the trial court should have applied traditional premises-liability law.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, inferring that the Legislature did not intend to apply a limited definition of “premises” as “a part of a building” outside Section 3. Instead, it noted that the definition appears only in Section 3 and specifies it applies to the term “premises” “as used in this section.”

“Because New Wineskin is a nonprofit religious organization whose premises are used primarily for worship services and Henderson’s injury occurred on the premises, the trial court did not err in applying Section 34-31-7-2,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the appellate court.

It further concluded that the undisputed evidence objectively clarifies the snow and ice were not a hidden danger to Henderson, who was aware the ground was snowy and icy before stepping out of the car.

“Because Section 34-31-7-2 applies, and under that statute no duty was breached, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to New Wineskin,” the appellate court concluded.

The case is Paula Henderson v. New Wineskin Ministries Corporation, 20A-CT-1317.

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