Unincorporated Churches and Members’ Lawsuits

Can an unincorporated church be sued by a member?

Church Law and Tax 1992-03-01 Recent Developments

A South Carolina appeals court ruled that a member of an unincorporated church could not sue his pastor and members of the church board for injuries he suffered in an accident on church property. A member volunteered to maintain the sound system of his church. He was injured when he fell from some loose rafters in the church attic while attempting to remove some wire. A trial court ruled in favor of the victim, and awarded him $300,000 in damages. The pastor and church board appealed, and a state appeals court dismissed the lawsuit against them. The appeals court concluded that all members of an unincorporated church have “equal ownership of the equitable title to the property including the right of occupancy and possession.” The accident victim, pastor, and board members, along with the other members of the church, “are cotenants with respect to the right of possession or occupancy of the church premises.” The court continued: “The simple issue then is whether the [pastor and board], who owned the right of possession of the property as cotenants with [the victim] and the other members of the congregation, owed a duty to their cotenants to inspect the unfloored portion of the attic to determine if there were any loose rafters …. We hold that a cotenant does not owe his cotenant a duty to so inspect for latent defects.” This case illustrates a potential consequence of the unincorporated form of organization—inability of a church member to sue for monetary damages on account of an injury occurring on church property. Crocker v. Barr, 397 S.E.2d 665 (S.C. App. 1990).

See Officers, directors, and trustees, Benjamin Plumbing, Inc. v. Barnes, 470 N.W.2d 888 (Wis. 1991).

See Also: Unincorporated Associations

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