Evangelical Churches Catch Suits From 'Spirit' Falls

ABC News' Lyneka Little reports:

A parishioner at the Disciple Fellowship Christian Church in East St. Louis, Ill., claims the spirit moved another worshiper so much during service that she caused others to tumble over backwards into her, causing injuries. Now she's suing the church for damages.

Cheryl Jones alleges in a complaint filed in December that she was visiting the church when member of the congregation received the "spirit" during praise and worship and with no ushers or members to assist, the parishioner fell backwards knocking several members into the plaintiff, who was injured falling to the floor.

"They should have either warned Cheryl and people like her of the potential dangers -especially if they're not going to have deacons or parishioners to help these people when they fall," attorney for the plaintiff Brian Millikan told ABCNews.com. Because falling during the service, according to Millikan, is something that "seems to happen often" at the church.

"One of the interesting questions of this case is what standard to apply: someone engaged by the holy spirit and not fully accountable or someone that should be treated objectively as assuming the risk of this activity," said Jonathan Turley, a tort law professor at George Washington University and legal blogger told ABC News. He is not involved in this case.

When filled with what is often called the holy spirit, "participants are worked up into such a frenzy that they may no longer appreciate or respond to risk. The question is how much is the church responsible in anticipating people will be acting without concern for danger or injury," said Turley.

"The whole idea of being touched by the holy spirit is to surrender yourself. In doing so, these are people that surrendering themselves to collapsing involuntary. These churches tend to treat this response as the holy ghost has taken away the power of the individuals to even stand," Turley continued.

But, it's this alleged negligent behavior, according to the complaint originally posted on the legal news Website On Point News, that allegedly caused Jones to hit her head, neck, back and buttocks and lose consciousness during the Jan. 5, 2010 services. She wants the church to pay for her medical bills.

Jones is suing the church for failing to protect her. The complaint states on that day the church typically had "two ushers that would stand on each side of the member to prevent the person receiving the 'spirit' from falling and injuring themselves" but no one was when she was injured.

The suit asks for a trial by jury.

In terms of the litigation, taking a church to court always presents risk for the plaintiff counsels, according to Turley.

"Jurors tend to be sympathetic towards religious organization. They also likely to be sympathetic of a church being sued due to the action of someone being filled with the spirit," said Turley. "There is certainly a challenge for the plaintiff to overcome."

It's important to distinguish to some degree the type of "swoon and fall cases" that have come up, said Turley. "Jurors are least likely to be sympathetic with someone who is injured when they fall in a religious trance," said Turley. "If the original person to fall is the person taken by the holy spirit, that person is probably in the worst position because there are what is called plaintiff conduct charges."

According to On Point News, the complaint is a part of a trend of suits dubbed "swoon and fall." A woman in Michigan filed a lawsuit against Mount Hope Church and International Outreach Ministries after she struck her head on the floor when an assistant minister prayed over her, allegedly causing her to be "slain in the spirit" and fall backwards.

In Oregon, the Portland Onnuri Church was not found liable after a woman asked to assist during service while churchgoers were blesses or "slain in the spirit" alleged she was injured because the church failed to provide multiple "catchers," according to On Point News.

Some say people are aware of the risk and lined up to be touched by the holy spirit and they witness people falling. "That then leaves the question for people that are surrounding the person," Turley continued. "In my view, churches are under obligation to take reasonable precaution that people will fall uncontrollably.

The Illinois suit accuses the church of negligence for failure to provide parishioners a safe place to worship; failure to ensure ushers were standing behind the parishioners to catch if they fell to the floor after the Pastor laid his hands on them; failure to control the parishioners who were receiving the "spirit"; failure to warn plaintiff and parishioners of the potential dangers of receiving the "spirit"; and failure to conduct a reasonably safe service.

An individual who picked up the phone at the church said the church had no comment about the complaint.

"These parishioners are discovering that churches are not immune from tort liability. Church has no special status when it comes to tort law. They are an institution that must take reasonable precaution," said Turley.