Court Says Unincorporated Association Members Not Responsible for Defamatory Statements

Members hadn’t authorized the statements made by other members.

Church Law and Tax 1996-07-01

Unincorporated Churches

Key point. In some states the members of unincorporated associations may be legally responsible for the acts of other members, but only if certain conditions are met.

An Illinois court concluded that members of an unincorporated association were not responsible for the alleged defamatory statements made by other members of the association, since they had not authorized or ratified the statements and the association was not organized for profit. An 8—member committee was formed to oppose a proposal to reduce the number of members on a city council. The committee was an unincorporated association. Some of the members of the committee made statements that were published in local newspapers that allegedly defamed two council members who supported the proposal. The council members sued all 8 members of the committee, claiming that the committee was an unincorporated association and as such its members were all liable for the acts of other members. A trial court dismissed from the lawsuit those committee members who had not participated in the defamatory statements, and the council members appealed. The council members claimed that all of the members of an unincorporated association are legally responsible for the acts of their fellow members, on the basis of both partnership and agency law. A state appeals court disagreed. It observed:

The plaintiffs seek to apply the principles of partnership and agency law, which hold a partner or principal liable for the tortious acts committed by another partner or an agent …. The plaintiffs have not cited any cases, however, in which partnership or agency liability has been found to be applicable to the members of a voluntary unincorporated association.

The narrow issue of whether a member of a voluntary unincorporated association may be held vicariously liable for the defamatory statements of another member of the association by virtue of mere membership in the association is one of first impression in Illinois. We find the answer to this issue to turn on whether or not the voluntary unincorporated association is organized for profit. The [Illinois Supreme Court previously ruled] that if a voluntary unincorporated association is organized for pecuniary profit, the rights and liabilities of its members to third parties would be determined according to partnership law. Here, since it is not alleged that the committee was organized for profit, we find partnership law to be inapplicable in determining the liabilities of the members.

The court also refused to determine the liability of the committee members on the basis of agency law. It noted that “a member of a nonprofit voluntary unincorporated association is not liable for the torts [misconduct] of a fellow member in the absence of (1) authorization or ratification of the tortious conduct, or (2) active participation in the tortious conduct.” The court concluded that there was no evidence that the committee members who did not participate in the defamatory newspaper article either authorized or ratified the statements, or actively participated in making them. Further, the court concluded that there was no evidence that the committee members who made the defamatory statements were the “agents” of the entire committee. The court pointed out that members of a nonprofit unincorporated association cannot be legally responsible for the misconduct of other members “without their direct participation, authorization, or subsequent ratification.” This case will be a helpful precedent for those churches in Illinois that are not incorporated, since it will limit the personal liability of members for the misconduct of other members—if the church does not operate any for—profit activities, and the innocent members did not directly participate in, authorize, or ratify the misconduct of the other member or members. Joseph v. Collins, 649 N.E.2d 964 (Ill. App. 1995). [ Unincorporated Associations]

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