Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Charitable Immunity Laws
Such a law recently prevented a church from being sued.

In a significant ruling, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that a state "charitable immunity" law prevented a church from being sued by the family of a boy who was injured seriously while attending a church day camp. A Baptist church operated a summer day camp for grade school children that was designed to "integrate biblical truth into the lives of children through formal teaching and informal activities such as crafts and games." A boy was injured while participating in a camp activity. While his parents had registered him in the camping program, neither the parents nor the boy attended the church or had any other contact with it. The parents sued the church, alleging that their son's injuries were caused by the church's negligence. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit against it on the basis of a state "charitable immunity" law that prevented charitable organizations from being sued on the basis of negligence by "beneficiaries" of their charitable activities. The New Jersey statute specifies: "No nonprofit corporation … organized exclusively for religious, charitable [or] educational … purposes shall … be liable to respond in damages to any person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation … where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation …." The trial court rejected the church's request to dismiss the case, and the church appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the church that the charitable immunity statute prevented the victim's parents from suing the church, and accordingly it dismissed the lawsuit against the church. The court observed that the statute provides legal immunity to nonprofit organizations with respect to injuries caused to their "beneficiaries" by their agents or representatives. The court concluded that these two requirements were satisfied in this case. Clearly, the church was a nonprofit religious organization. And second, the victim was a beneficiary. The court reasoned that one is a beneficiary who participates in an activity of a charity that furthers its charitable objectives. Since the victim was participating in a camp that existed to further the religious objectives of the church, he was a beneficiary of the church and therefore could not sue it on the basis of its alleged negligence. In defending the statute, the court observed: "The principle of charitable immunity was deeply rooted in the common law of New Jersey. The principle is premised on the fact that charitable associations are created to pursue philanthropic goals and the accomplishment of those goals would be hampered if they were to pay tort judgments in cases similar to this matter …. [A] person who makes a charitable contribution expects his donation to further the goals of the organization, and not to be used to satisfy lawsuits which bear no direct relationship to those goals." The court also emphasized that the charitable immunity statute reflects the inapplicability of the "respondeat superior" doctrine to charitable organizations. This is a very significant observation. Most lawsuits against churches are based on the respondeat superior doctrine, which makes employers legally responsible for the misconduct and negligence of their agents and employees. This doctrine is based on one fundamental consideration—employers can allocate the cost of the injuries and damages that their agents cause by simply increasing the price of their products. While this principle may have merit in the context of commercial corporations that have the ability to increase the price of their products to pay for the negligence of their workers, it has no application whatever to a church that has no "product" to sell. Hopefully, more courts will see this vital distinction. There are other states that have charitable immunity laws. Rupp v. Brookdale Baptist Church, 577 A.2d 188 (N.J. Super. 1990).

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Posted: March 1, 1991
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