Can a member of an unincorporated church sue the church for injuries sustained while repairing a church sound system? No, concluded a South Carolina appeals court.
A church member was seriously injured when he fell from the church's attic onto a concrete floor while attempting to repair a speaker system at the request of the church board. The court concluded that the injured member could not sue either the church or the board members in their official capacity.
It explained its ruling as follows: "Members of an unincorporated association are engaged in a joint enterprise, and the negligence of each member in the prosecution of that enterprise is imputable to each and every other member, so that the member who has suffered damages to his person, property, or reputation through the tortious conduct of another member of the association may not recover from the association for such damage, although he may recover individually from the member actually guilty of the tort.
The reason for this rule, as it is sometimes stated by the courts, is that since the negligence of the tortfeasor member is imputable to the member who has sustained the damage or injury as a result of such tort, the latter may not sue himself for his own negligence." The court acknowledged that some states have enacted laws that permit persons to sue an unincorporated association directly. However, it noted that such laws also treat unincorporated associations as "legal entities" and "expose only the assets of the association to liability."
South Carolina law, on the other hand, does not treat unincorporated churches as "legal entities" and specifically allows any judgment against an unincorporated association to be paid out of the personal assets of individual members. As a result, the court concluded that "a member of a voluntary unincorporated association … cannot maintain an action in tort against the association for injuries suffered by the member because of the negligence of fellow members."
This case illustrates the potential risk faced by members of unincorporated churches who are injured in the course of church activities, particularly if the church has not obtained adequate liability insurance.
Crocker v. Barr, 367 S.E.2d 471 (S.C. App. 1988)