Member Sues Unincorporated Church

He was injured while repairing the church’s sound system.

Church Law and Tax1992-11-01Recent Developments

Taxation – Church Property

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a church member could sue his unincorporated church for injuries sustained while repairing the church sound system, but he could not recover more than the $200,000 “cap” allowed by state law. The member volunteered to enter the church attic to repair the sound system. While in the attic, he fell through the ceiling and landed on a concrete floor some ten feet below. His injuries required him to miss work for nearly a year. The victim sued his church, pastors, and church board members, alleging that they were all negligent and responsible for his injuries. A jury awarded him $300,000, and the defendants appealed. A state appeals court reversed the jury’s award and the case was appealed on to the state supreme court. The supreme court ruled that the injured member could sue his church, even though it was unincorporated. However, the court refused to permit the injured member to sue the pastors and church board members personally. It based its decision on a South Carolina statute that prevents individual members from being sued personally unless it is established that they acted “in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner.” Since the injured member had failed to prove that the pastors and board members had acted recklessly or with gross negligence, these individuals could not be personally liable. Finally, the court reduced the jury’s award from $300,000 to $200,000 on the basis of a South Carolina statute that provides: “Any person sustaining an injury or dying by reason of the tortious act … of an employee of a charitable organization, when the employee is acting within the scope of his employment, may only recover in any action brought against the charitable organization in an amount not exceeding two hundred thousand dollars.” The court concluded that a church fit “squarely within the definition of a charitable organization” for purposes of this law. This case illustrates the importance of the South Carolina “charitable immunity” law which prohibits charities (including churches) from being sued for more than $200,000. It also illustrates that unincorporated churches may be sued in South Carolina by their members as a result of injuries sustained during church activities. Crocker v. Barr, 409 S.E.2d 368 (S.C. 1992).

See Also: Unincorporated Associations | Charitable Immunity

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