Police Officer Sues Protesters at Abortion Clinic

Members of an unincorporated association are not necessarily responsible for fellow members’ misconduct.

Church Law and Tax 1997-07-01

Unincorporated Churches

Key point. Members of an unincorporated association are not necessarily responsible for the misconduct of other members, unless they participated in or ratified those actions.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the members of an unincorporated association are not necessarily responsible for the misconduct of their fellow members. A police officer was injured while attempting to carry away a protester at an abortion clinic. He later sued twelve other persons who were engaged in the protest. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit and the police officer appealed. A state appeals court ruled that the protesters could be liable for the injuries caused by the protester who was being moved. It based this conclusion on the basis of the principle that members of an unincorporated association are liable “for the negligence of other members or the negligence of the association itself.” The state supreme court disagreed with this conclusion, noting that “even if the demonstrators constituted an unincorporated association, we have never held that they are automatically liable for the actions of other members of the association.” The court further noted that “imposing liability on individuals on the sole basis that a member of the group to which they belong has committed a [wrong] in the pursuit of the groups goals would pose serious threats to the right of free association.” The court concluded: “We believe that the liability of members of a group should be analyzed in terms of the specific actions undertaken, authorized or ratified by those members. Therefore, regardless of whether there was an unincorporated association here, we reject the lower court’s intimation that the existence of such an association might alone form the basis for imposing tort liability on all members for the acts of some.”

Application. This case will be of immense value to members of unincorporated churches who are sued as a result of the misconduct of another member. The Texas Supreme Court rejected the traditional rule that members of an unincorporated association are liable for the acts of other members in the course of the associations activities. Members of unincorporated churches who are sued for the acts of other members should inform their attorney of this important case. While it is binding only in the state of Texas, it will be persuasive in other states. Of course, other courts may continue to follow the traditional rule, which has been applied in many other cases in recent years. Also, note that the Texas Supreme Court did not grant members of unincorporated associations absolute immunity from personal liability. The court noted that members can be personally liable on the basis of “specific actions undertaken, authorized or ratified.” What does this mean? Members always may be personally liable for their own acts, or for the acts of others that they authorize or ratify. This exception raises questions that the court did not address. For example, could it be argued that the members of an unincorporated church are personally liable for another members acts of child molestation because they failed to adopt procedures for screening workers? This is certainly a possibility. It remains to be seen how broadly or narrowly this exception is construed. Juhl v. Airington, 936 S.W.2d 640 (Tex. 1996). [ Unincorporated Associations]

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