• Key point.. In some states, unincorporated churches are viewed as an entity rather than a group of individuals. As a result, members who are injured in the course of church activities can sue their church without having the case dismissed as an example of "members suing themselves".
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that members of an unincorporated church can sue their church for injuries they suffer on church property or in the course of church activities. The court reversed previous rulings in which it had applied the traditional rule that members of an unincorporated church cannot sue their church. The facts of the case can be quickly stated. A church member (the "victim") attended a meeting of a local "Toastmasters" chapter that had rented a portion of the church for the evening. Both members and non-members of the church attended the function. Over the course of the evening, some snow and ice accumulated in the parking lot of the church. After spending about two hours inside, the victim left the church and walked toward her automobile. As she neared her car, she slipped and fell. An associate pastor saw her fall and immediately drove her to the hospital, where she received treatment for a broken arm. The associate pastor later commented to the church's business manager that the parking lot had been slick on his way into the church earlier that evening and was still slippery on his way out when he saw the victim fall.
The victim later sued her church and its 9-member board of trustees for her personal injuries, alleging negligence for failure to properly maintain the parking lot, failure to inspect the parking lot for dangerous conditions, failure to remove the snow and ice from the parking lot, and failure to warn her of the dangerous conditions. The trustees and church pointed out that the church was unincorporated, and as a result the victim could not sue them. A trial court agreed, applying the traditional rule that a member of an unincorporated association cannot sue the association for the negligence of another member. This rule is based on the following considerations: (1) unincorporated associations are not "legal entities" and therefore cannot be sued directly; (2) members of an unincorporated association are engaged in a "joint venture," and therefore the negligence of one is imputed to all the others. In this case, this meant that the negligence of the church leaders in failing to remove snow and ice from the parking lot was imputed to the victim, preventing her from maintaining her lawsuit. The victim appealed. A state appeals court agreed that the victim could not sue the trustees, but it concluded that she could sue her church. The church appealed to the state supreme court.