Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Members' Lawsuits Against Unincorporated Organizations
Can an unincorporated organization be sued by one of its members?

An Indiana state court ruled that a member of an unincorporated nonprofit organization cannot sue the organization for injuries sustained during an organization activity. An 18-year-old university freshman became a member of a fraternity. While participating in a fraternity party he consumed an excessive amount of alcohol, removed his clothing, climbed atop a brick wall and dove head first onto a concrete patio (thinking it to be a pool). He broke his neck and was rendered a quadriplegic. He sued his fraternity, claiming that it had been negligent in providing alcohol to persons under the legal drinking age, and in failing to provide adequate supervision of activities at the party. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the victim appealed. A state appeals court upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit against the fraternity. It based its decision on the "general rule in Indiana that a member of an unincorporated association cannot sue the association for the tortious conduct of another member. As the members are engaged in a joint enterprise, each member has a right to exercise control over the operations of the association. The negligence of a single member is imputed to all other members of the association." The court relied squarely upon a decision of the state supreme court refusing to permit an injured church member from suing his unincorporated church. The court rejected the fraternity member's argument that the general rule should not be applied to a new member of an unincorporated association (he was a freshman), or to any association whose membership changes significantly from year to year. What is the significance of this case to church leaders? Simply this—church leaders must recognize that one of the consequences of the unincorporated form of organization in many states is that church members injured during church activities cannot sue their church for money damages. This may seem like an advantage as far as the church is concerned. But, this is small consolation to a member who suffers severe injuries during a church activity. Such a result often comes as a shock to the injured member, and to other members. Foster v. Purdue University, 567 N.E.2d 865 (Ind. App. 1991).

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Posted: January 1, 1992
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