The Protection of Charitable Immunity

Some states will not allow charities to be sued because of negligence.

Church Law and Tax 1995-03-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point: A few states continue to recognize the doctrine of charitable immunity and refuse to permit charities to be sued on the basis of their negligent activities.

A Maryland appeals court reaffirmed that state’s adherence to the charitable immunity doctrine, and as a result dismissed a lawsuit against a charitable organization seeking money damages for its alleged negligence. Earlier in this century, many states recognized the doctrine of charitable immunity. This doctrine protected charities from being sued as a result of their negligence. Over the years, most states have either completely rejected the doctrine, or retained it in limited form (see the preceding recent development). According to a recent Maryland court decision, the doctrine continues to survive in that state. The facts of the case are simple. An adult was injured during a basketball game at a Jewish Community Center. He sued the center alleging that its negligent supervision of the game resulted in his injury. The center claimed that it was immune from liability as a result of the state’s charitable immunity law. A state appeals court agreed with the charity and dismissed the lawsuit. It began its opinion by observing that Maryland has long recognized the doctrine of charitable immunity. While the state legislature enacted a statute permitting charities that carry liability insurance to be sued, “[i]n the absence of such insurance, a negligence action cannot be maintained against a charitable institution.” Since the center had no liability insurance coverage, this exception did not apply. The injured basketball player urged the court to follow the lead of most of the other states and reject the doctrine of charitable immunity. The court declined to do so, insisting that it is up to the state legislature to abolish the doctrine. The court noted that the legislature in recent years has expressed no interest in repudiating the doctrine. Quite to the contrary, it has expanded it by granting limited immunity from liability to the directors, employees, and volunteers of charitable organizations. This ruling illustrates the special status enjoyed by churches and other charities in Maryland. While immunity from liability is not absolute (it only applies to acts of ordinary negligence), it is nevertheless a significant protection that is available to churches and other religious organizations in few other states. Abramson v. Reiss, 638 A.2d 743 (Md. 1994).

See Also: Negligence as a Basis for Liability – Defenses

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