The First Amendment Right to Religious Darkness

Starting at Valadez v. St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, 2021, WL 6128567. Decreed Sept. 24, 2021, by Judge Audra Moi (L.A. Superior Court).

Plaintiff, Flavia Valadez … filed this action against Defendant, St. Joseph The Worker Catholic Church … alleging causes of action for negligence and premises liability. Plaintiff was injured by unsafe conditions around a staircase on Defendant’s property. Defendant now moves for summary judgment…. “The premises owner is obligated to use ordinary care when managing such premises to prevent people from being exposed to unreasonable dangers of harm. Neglecting to meet this obligation is considered negligence. …

Defendant says the incident happened on April 5, 2017. It occurred during a Catholic faith tradition, the Service of the Light. According to tradition, the church was deliberately in darkness at the time of incident. Plaintiff has been attending the Service regularly since 1997, prior to the incident. It was dark when Plaintiff first entered the church. Plaintiff then went upstairs and found a place in the balcony. She had previously been there five to six times before. It was dark when Plaintiff got to the balcony. There was one overhead light that was shining above the altar. There are four levels to the balcony, or landings where seats can be found. Plaintiff took her seat and stepped forward thinking that she reached the last landing. But, there was one more landing Plaintiff hadn’t seen. Defendant avers the only dangerous condition Plaintiff claims caused her fall is the darkness in the church, which prevented her from seeing the landing….

Court rejected Church’s claim that danger was “open-and-obvious”. California law provides that “if it can be predicted that injury may result from a condition despite its obviousness, there may be a duty of care and liability to rectify the danger. If it causes injury in a proximate manner, the breach may give rise to liability.” However, the Court ruled in favor of the Church’s “primary assumptionof risk” doctrine.

If, due to “the nature of the activity or the relationship between the parties to it, the defendant does not have a legal duty to protect plaintiff from any particular risk of injury that caused the injury,” then the assumption of risk is “operate[s]”A complete block to plaintiffs’ recovery.” {[F]or example in the context of sports, … [p]laintiffs assume risks inherent in a sport by participating, and defendants generally owe no duty to protect plaintiffs from such risks but owe a duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport.}

It isn’t just a doctrine about taking on risk in sports. This applies to all activities that involve an inherent risk to injury for voluntary participants, where it is impossible to eliminate the risk without changing the basic nature of the activity. (Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC (Cal. App. 2009) [affirming application of assumption of risk doctrine where Plaintiff was burned by remnants of Burning Man effigy while at Burning Man Festival].) …

Plaintiff is not disputing his attendance at the Service from 1997 to the present or being conscious of the darkness that was part of the Service. From the moment Plaintiff entered the church, it was still dark. He then went up to the balcony and witnessed the accident. Plaintiff decided to attend the Service. Thus, he chose to do an activity that included darkness. Participating in the Service poses a risk because participants will often be present inside the church during the dark hours. The risk of falling inside the church while walking or moving around inside while it is dark is an obvious and inherent risk to participating in the Service….

[T]The evidence has shown that Plaintiff knew to go to the balcony and confront the landings. It was necessary and inherent to the event that there was darkness. The risk of falling onto the balcony was evident. This was within the scope of the activity.

Plaintiff claims that Defendant raised the danger of darkness. However, Plaintiff cannot identify any actions by Defendant apart from the darkening which caused Plaintiff’s injuries. Plaintiff claims that Plaintiff fell because of the darkness and the defective stairs. Plaintiff provides a balcony riser that Plaintiff fell from. However, Plaintiff fails to provide evidence. Plaintiff states the landing area was between 33-5/8 inches and 85 inches. Plaintiff also does not explain why this made it unsafe or how the darkened balcony increased danger. Plaintiff also fails to explain why the Service’s inherent risk was increased by the factors Plaintiff identified, even though Plaintiff knew about the balcony landings. Plaintiff does not have any evidence to support the claim that Defendant caused Plaintiff harm by his actions and inactions.

Accordingly, Plaintiff is entitled to apply the principle of primary assumption to risk to any activity that Plaintiff engages in, so Defendant was not obligated to Plaintiff to avoid Plaintiff’s injuries. The court needs not address the remaining issues….