Unincorporated Churches

A Georgia court ruled that a member of an unincorporated church could sue his church for injuries he sustained while participating in a construction project.

Church Law and Tax2003-07-01

Unincorporated churches

Key point 6-01.1. Unincorporated associations have no legal existence and as a result cannot sue or be sued, hold title to property, or enter into contracts. Some states have modified or eliminated some or all of these limitations.

Key point 10-06. A church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent selection for injuries resulting from the acts of a minister or other worker not involving sexual misconduct.
Negligence as a Basis for Liability
Unincorporated Associations

* A Georgia court ruled that a member of an unincorporated church could sue his church for injuries he sustained while participating in a construction project, and that the church could be liable for the member’s injuries on the basis of its negligent hiring of an incompetent construction foreman. A church decided to construct a new fellowship hall on its property. After receiving bids from several construction companies, the church decided that it lacked funds to hire an outside firm, and members from the congregation were asked to perform the construction. During construction, the members discovered that scaffolding was needed to finish the project. Rather than purchase scaffolding, they built a platform instead. In order to stabilize this makeshift platform, it was nailed to the new walls which were under construction. When a member (“Ron”) climbed on top of this platform, it pulled away from the wall and collapsed. Ron suffered serious injuries, and later sued the church. He alleged that the church was guilty of negligent hiring in using his father as the construction foreman.

suing an unincorporated church

The church argued that members of an unincorporated church cannot sue their church under any circumstances. And, since the church was unincorporated, Ron could not sue it. The court disagreed. It noted that the state legislature had enacted a law specifying that unincorporated associations may be sued “in any cause of action,” and this meant that members of an unincorporated association are not barred from suing the association. The court also noted that the same statute provided that individual members of unincorporated associations cannot be personally liable for the association’s liabilities unless they personally participated in the act that led to the liability.

negligent hiring

The court noted that the church made no attempt to investigate the qualifications of Ron’s father to serve as the construction foreman. When Ron’s father volunteered for the job, the church merely accepted his offer without further inquiry. And, although there was some evidence that Ron’s father had some experience with residential construction, this did not necessarily make him qualified to serve as foreman of the church project since “the father himself, testified that he had no background, experience, education, or training in commercial construction.” Further, a builder testified that “a contractor with limited residential experience is not necessarily competent to complete a commercial construction project such as a church addition.” In addition, an engineer reviewed the structure of the platform designed by Ron’s father and concluded that it was “wholly insufficient for its intended purpose.” This evidence persuaded the court that Ron could sue the church for negligent hiring.

Application. This case illustrates two important points. First, many states have enacted laws that reject the traditional rule that members of unincorporated associations cannot sue their association. Georgia is one of those states. Second, churches may be liable on the basis of negligent hiring for injuries occurring during church construction projects if the construction foreman selected by the church is incompetent. Many churches use their own members to assist with construction projects. This case suggests that special care must be taken to ensure that the foreman of such a project is experienced and competent. Piney Grove Baptist Church v. Goss, 565 S.E.2d 569 (Ga. App. 2002).

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