Key point 10-16.05. The legal liability of churches and their officers, directors, and volunteers, is limited by state and federal "charitable immunity" laws.
In most states, religious organizations are subject to being sued for the negligence of their employees just like any commercial organization. However, the view that religious organizations should be completely immune from liability was once common. It gradually was rejected by all of the states that had adopted it. The principle of total immunity frequently was criticized. One court observed, "Even the most cursory research makes it apparent that there is no ground upon which this doctrine of nonliability has rested … that has not been assailed and criticized at length by some other court. …"  Gable v. Salvation Army, 100 P.2d 244, 246 (Okla. 1940).
While the view that charities should be completely immune from civil liability has been rejected, it is important to recognize that charities are given limited immunity under both state and federal law. The major forms of limited immunity are addressed in this section.
1. Limited Liability of Uncompensated Officers and Directors
This form of charitable immunity is addressed in section § 6-08, as well as in the following subsection addressing the limited liability of volunteers.
2. Limited Liability of Volunteers
Many states have enacted statutes conferring limited liability upon persons who perform uncompensated volunteer work on behalf of a charity. In addition, Congress enacted the federal Volunteer Protection Act 42 U.S.C. § 14501 in 1997. This legislation provides substantial protection to volunteers who provide services on behalf of churches and other charities. Here is a summary of the Act's provisions:
• Congressional "findings." The Act begins with several "findings," including the following:(1) the willingness of volunteers to offer their services is deterred by the potential for liability actions against them; (2) as a result, many nonprofit public and private organizations and governmental entities, including voluntary associations, social service agencies, educational institutions, and other civic programs, have been adversely affected by the withdrawal of volunteers from boards of directors and service in other capacities; (3) the contribution of these programs to their communities is thereby diminished, resulting in fewer and higher cost programs than would be obtainable if volunteers were participating … (6) due to high liability costs and unwarranted litigation costs, volunteers and nonprofit organizations face higher costs in purchasing insurance, through interstate insurance markets, to cover their activities. …
• Effect on state laws. Prior to the enactment of the Volunteer Protection Act, many states had enacted similar laws. What is the legal status of these state laws? The Act addresses this question as follows:This Act preempts the laws of any state to the extent that such laws are inconsistent with this Act, except that this Act shall not preempt any state law that provides additional protection from liability relating to volunteers or to any category of volunteers in the performance of services for a nonprofit organization or governmental entity.
• Liability protection for volunteers. The purpose of the Act is to limit the liability of volunteers. This purpose is accomplished through the following provision:[N]o volunteer of a nonprofit organization … shall be liable for harm caused by an act or omission of the volunteer on behalf of the organization or entity if—(1) the volunteer was acting within the scope of the volunteer's responsibilities in the nonprofit organization or governmental entity at the time of the act or omission; (2) if appropriate or required, the volunteer was properly licensed, certified, or authorized by the appropriate authorities for the activities or practice in the State in which the harm occurred, where the activities were or practice was undertaken within the scope of the volunteer's responsibilities in the nonprofit organization or governmental entity; (3) the harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer; and (4) the harm was not caused by the volunteer operating a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or other vehicle for which the state requires the operator or the owner of the vehicle, craft, or vessel to—(A) possess an operator's license; or (B) maintain insurance.
• Definitions. The Act defines a nonprofit organization to mean "any organization which is described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and exempt from tax under section 501(a) of such Code and which does not practice any action which constitutes a hate crime," or "any not-for-profit organization which is organized and conducted for public benefit and operated primarily for charitable, civic, educational, religious, welfare, or health purposes and which does not practice any action which constitutes a hate crime. …"The Act defines a volunteer as "an individual performing services for a nonprofit organization … who does not receive—(A) compensation (other than reasonable reimbursement or allowance for expenses actually incurred); or (B) any other thing of value in lieu of compensation, in excess of $500 per year, and such term includes a volunteer serving as a director, officer, trustee, or direct service volunteer."
• No effect on a charity's liability. The Act clarifies that it does not "affect the liability of any nonprofit organization … with respect to harm caused to any person." In other words, the limited immunity provided by the Act extends only to volunteers, and not to charities themselves.
• Punitive damages. The Act specifies that punitive damages "may not be awarded against a volunteer in an action brought for harm based on the action of a volunteer acting within the scope of the volunteer's responsibilities to a nonprofit organization or governmental entity unless the claimant establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the harm was proximately caused by an action of such volunteer which constitutes willful or criminal misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed."
• Exceptions. The "immunity" provided by the Act is limited, meaning that it is not absolute. The Act specifies that it confers no immunity upon volunteers whose misconduct (1) is a crime of violence or act of international terrorism for which the volunteer has been convicted in any court; (2) is a hate crime; (3) is a sexual offense, as defined by state law, for which the volunteer has been convicted in any court; (4) is a violation of a federal or state civil rights law; or (5) occurred while the volunteer was under the influence of intoxicating alcohol or any drug at the time of the misconduct.
• Amount of liability. In the event that a volunteer is found liable in any civil action, the Act limits the amount of "noneconomic" damages that can be assessed. Noneconomic damages are defined by the Act as "losses for physical and emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of society and companionship, loss of consortium … hedonic damages, injury to reputation and all other nonpecuniary losses of any kind or nature." The Act specifies that a volunteer "shall be liable only for the amount of noneconomic loss allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to the percentage of responsibility of that defendant … for the harm to the claimant with respect to which that defendant is liable." In other words, if a volunteer is found to be ten percent at fault, he or she cannot be assessed more than ten percent of the noneconomic damages awarded by a jury.
- A child drowns during a church youth activity at a lake. The parents of the victim sue the church, and also a volunteer worker who allegedly was negligent. The volunteer received no compensation for her services. She is protected by the federal Volunteer Protection Act, and cannot be liable unless her actions amounted to "criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed." The Act does not provide the church with any protection.
- Same facts as the previous example, except that the volunteer was paid an "honorarium" of $250 each year by the church. The Act only protects uncompensated volunteers, but it defines "uncompensated" to include volunteers who do not receive annual compensation in excess of $500.
- A woman sues her church, claiming that an associate pastor to whom she had gone for counseling engaged in inappropriate sexual contact. Because the church has very limited insurance coverage for such a claim, the woman also sues the members of the church board individually. She claims that they were guilty of negligent supervision. The board members are protected from personal liability by the federal Volunteer Protection Act, unless their actions amounted to "criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed." The Act does not provide the church with any protection.
- Same facts as the previous question, except that the church provides the board with a dinner twice each year in recognition of the services they provide. The value of the meals is approximately $50 per year for each board member. The board receives no other form of remuneration. The Act only protects uncompensated volunteers, but it defines "uncompensated" to include volunteers who do not receive annual compensation in excess of $500. The board members clearly meet the definition of uncompensated, and so are protected against personal liability by the Act.
- Same facts as the previous example, except that the church pays each board member an honorarium of $1,000 at the end of each year. The board members do not meet the definition of uncompensated, and as a result are not protected by the Act.
- A child is molested by a youth worker while at church. The parents sue the church and members of the board. They allege that the board refused to screen volunteer youth workers, despite numerous requests by parents, because they considered it a waste of time. The Act may not protect the board members, since their actions in refusing to implement any procedures for reducing the risk of child molestation may be viewed by a jury as "gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed."
- A volunteer church worker causes an accident while driving a church vehicle on church business. An occupant of another car is injured. The victim sues the church, and also sues the volunteer individually. The volunteer is not protected by the Act, since the Act does not extend to harm caused by a volunteer operating a motor vehicle.
- A church uses a volunteer "lay counselor" to provide counseling services to members of the church. The counselor also provides services to members of the community as an outreach. The counselor is not licensed. A counselee sues the church and counselor, claiming that she was injured by the counselor's services. The counselor is not protected by the Act if she was required to be licensed by the state to engage in the counseling services she provided.
3. Injuries to beneficiaries
Some states immunize religious organizations from liability for the negligence of agents and employees committed against "beneficiaries" of the organization. This view ordinarily is based upon one of the following grounds: (1) the funds of religious organizations are held in trust for charitable purposes and may not be diverted to the payment of damages; (2) the misconduct of employees should not be imputed to a religious organization when their services are for the benefit of humanity and not for the economic gain of the organization that employs them; (3) a religious organization is engaged in work highly beneficial to the state and to humanity, and its funds should not be diverted from this important purpose to the payment of damages; or, (4) those accepting the benefits of a religious organization implicitly agree not to hold it liable for injuries that they may receive at the hands of its employees. Egerton v. R.E. Lee Memorial Church, 273 F. Supp. 834 (W.D. Va. 1967), aff'd, 395 F.2d 381 (4th Cir. 1968).
To illustrate, a woman who visited a church to view the sanctuary and its stained-glass windows was deemed to be a beneficiary of the church and therefore incapable of recovering damages for injuries she suffered in the church. Id. Other examples of beneficiaries include a church Sunday school teacher, Wiklund v. Presbyterian Church, 217 A.2d 463 (N.J. 1966). a nonmember who attended a church social, Burgie v. Muench, 29 N.E.2d 439 (Ohio 1940). a member of a Girl Scout troop that met on church property, Bianchi v. South Park Presbyterian Church, 8 A.2d 567 (N.J. 1939). a person attending a religious service, Cullen v. Schmit, 39 N.E. 2d 146 (Ohio 1942). and a guest at a church wedding. Anasiewicz v. Sacred Heart Church, 181 A.2d 787 (N.J. 1962), appeal denied, 184 A.2d 419 (1962).
• A New Jersey court ruled that a state charitable immunity law prevented a church from being sued by the family of a boy who was injured seriously while attending a church day camp. Rupp v. Brookdale Baptist Church, 577 A.2d 188 (N.J. Super. 1990). In defending the statute, the court observed, "The principle of charitable immunity was deeply rooted in the common law of New Jersey. The principle is premised on the fact that charitable associations are created to pursue philanthropic goals and the accomplishment of those goals would be hampered if they were to pay tort judgments in cases similar to this matter. … [A] person who makes a charitable contribution expects his donation to further the goals of the organization, and not to be used to satisfy lawsuits which bear no direct relationship to those goals." A church operated a summer day camp for grade school children that was designed to "integrate biblical truth into the lives of children through formal teaching and informal activities such as crafts and games." A boy was injured while participating in a camp activity. Though his parents had registered him in the camping program, neither the parents nor the boy attended the church or had any other contact with it. The parents sued the church, alleging that their son's injuries were caused by the church's negligence. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit against it on the basis of a state "charitable immunity" law that prevented charitable organizations from being sued on the basis of negligence by "beneficiaries" of their charitable activities. The New Jersey statute specifies: "No nonprofit corporation … organized exclusively for religious, charitable [or] educational … purposes shall … be liable to respond in damages to any person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation … where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation. …" The trial court rejected the church's request to dismiss the case, and the church appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the church that the charitable immunity statute prevented the victim's parents from suing the church, and accordingly it dismissed the lawsuit against the church. The court observed that the statute provides legal immunity to nonprofit organizations with respect to injuries caused to their "beneficiaries" by their agents or representatives. The court concluded that these two requirements were satisfied in this case. Clearly, the church was a nonprofit religious organization. And second, the victim was a beneficiary. The court reasoned that one is a beneficiary who participates in an activity of a charity that furthers its charitable objectives. Since the victim was participating in a camp that existed to further the religious objectives of the church, he was a beneficiary of the church and therefore could not sue it on the basis of its alleged negligence.
• 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. Abramson v. Reiss, 638 A.2d 743 (Md. 1994). 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.
• The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that a volunteer performing services on behalf of a charity cannot be sued as a result of injuries that occur as a result of those services. Moore v. Warren, 463 S.E.2d 459 (Va. 1995). A Red Cross volunteer was driving a woman in a Red Cross vehicle to a hospital for medical services. On the way the car was involved in an accident with another vehicle and the woman passenger was injured. The woman later died, and her estate sued the volunteer for negligent driving. The volunteer defended himself by asserting that Virginia recognized the principle of charitable immunity, and that under this doctrine he could not be liable for the woman's injuries since they occurred while he was performing charitable services. Under these circumstances, the volunteer claimed that he was "cloaked with the immunity of the charity." A trial court agreed with the volunteer, and the estate appealed. The state supreme court agreed that the volunteer was not liable for the woman's injuries. The court began its opinion by noting that "[t]he doctrine of charitable immunity adopted in Virginia precludes a charity's beneficiaries from recovering damages from the charity for the negligent acts of its servants or agents if due care was exercised in the hiring and retention of those agents and servants." The woman's estate argued that cloaking a volunteer with charitable immunity would unfairly protect charitable activities at the expense of compensating persons who are injured by those volunteers. The court disagreed, noting that "[w]e struck this balance in favor of charitable institutions when the doctrine of charitable immunity was adopted and applied in Virginia years ago." This choice, noted the court, was based upon the belief that "it is in the public interest to encourage charitable institutions in their good work." The court observed, "Like any organization, a charity performs its work only through the actions of its servants and agents. Without a charity's agents and servants, such as the volunteer here, no service could be provided to beneficiaries. Denying these servants and agents the charity's immunity for their acts effectively would deny the charity immunity for its acts. If the charity's servants and agents are not under the umbrella of immunity given the institution itself and they are exposed to negligence actions by the charity's beneficiaries, the "good work" of the charity will be adversely impacted. That result is inconsistent with the Commonwealth's policy underlying the doctrine of charitable immunity." The court concluded that "under the doctrine of charitable immunity, a volunteer of a charity is immune from liability to the charity's beneficiaries for negligence while the volunteer was engaged in the charity's work."
4. State Laws Imposing "Caps" on Damages
Three states have enacted laws limiting the liability of churches (and other charitable organizations). In addition, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1991 places caps on employer damages in some discrimination cases. This section will review these laws, and court rulings applying them.
(1) The Civil Rights Act of 1991
The federal Civil Rights Act of 1991 imposes limits on the amount of monetary damages that can be assessed against employers in discrimination lawsuits. Employers with more than 14 but fewer than 101 employees cannot be liable for more than $50,000 to any one person; for employers with more than 100 but fewer than 201 employees, the maximum damages available to any one person is $100,000; for employers with more than 200 but fewer than 500 employees, the maximum damages available to any one person is $200,000; and for employers with more than 500 employees the maximum damages available to any one person is $300,000. Some exceptions apply. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is addressed further in section 8-12.09.
In 1971 the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law limiting the liability of charitable organizations. The statute, as amended in 2012, specifies:
It shall not constitute a defense to any cause of action based on tort brought against a corporation, trustees of a trust, or members of an association that said corporation, trust, or association is or at the time the cause of action arose was a charity; provided, that if the tort was committed in the course of any activity carried on to accomplish directly the charitable purposes of such corporation, trust, or association, liability in any such cause of action shall not exceed the sum of twenty thousand dollars exclusive of interest and costs; and provided further, that in the context of medical malpractice claims against a nonprofit organization providing health care, such cause of action shall not exceed the sum of $100,000, exclusive of interest and costs. Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, the liability of charitable corporations, the trustees of charitable trusts, and the members of charitable associations shall not be subject to the limitations set forth in this section if the tort was committed in the course of activities primarily commercial in character even though carried on to obtain revenue to be used for charitable purposes. Mass. General Laws c. 231, § 85K.
Note the following significant provisions of this law: (1) the liability of charitable organizations for activities carried on to further the organization's charitable purposes is limited to $20,000 ($100,000 in the case of nonprofit health care providers); (2) there is no $20,000 or $100,000 limit for activities carried on by charitable organizations for "commercial" purposes.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously upheld the validity of the Massachusetts law in 1989. English v. New England Medical Center, 541 N.E.2d 329 (Mass. 1989). See also In re Boston's Regional Medical Center, Inc., 328 F.Supp.2d 130 (D. Mass. 2004); St. Clair v. Trustees of Boston University, 521 N.E.2d 1044 (Mass. App. 1988).
(3) South Carolina
Section 33-56-180 of the South Caroline Code contains the following provision:
(A) A person sustaining an injury or dying by reason of the tortious act of commission or omission of an employee of a charitable organization, when the employee is acting within the scope of his employment, may recover in an action brought against the charitable organization only the actual damages he sustains in an amount not exceeding the limitations on liability imposed in the South Carolina Tort Claims Act in Chapter 78 of Title 15 [generally, the Act limits liability to $300,000 per person, and $600,000 in total in cases of multiple plaintiffs]. An action against the charitable organization pursuant to this section constitutes a complete bar to any recovery by the claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the charitable organization whose act or omission gave rise to the claim unless it is alleged and proved in the action that the employee acted in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner, and the employee must be joined properly as a party defendant. A judgment against an employee of a charitable organization may not be returned unless a specific finding is made that the employee acted in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner. If the charitable organization for which the employee was acting cannot be determined at the time the action is instituted, the plaintiff may name as a party defendant the employee, and the entity for which the employee was acting must be added or substituted as party defendant when it reasonably can be determined.
(B) If the actual damages from the injury or death giving rise to the action arose from the use or operation of a motor vehicle and exceed two hundred fifty thousand dollars, this section does not prevent the injured person from recovering benefits pursuant to section 38-77-160 but in an amount not to exceed the limits of the uninsured or underinsured coverage. See Smith ex rel. Estate of Smith v. Church Mutual Insurance Company, 375 F.Supp.2d 451?(D.S.C. 2005).
Here is a summary of the important features of this law:
First, it applies to "charitable organizations," a term that covers most churches and religious organizations.
Second, persons injured as a result of the negligence (or other wrongful activity) of a church employee may not sue the employee. They must sue the church itself—unless the employee "acted recklessly, wantonly, or grossly negligent," or unless the identity of the church cannot be established.
Third, and most significantly, the church is liable only for actual damages up to but not exceeding $300,000 (for one plaintiff, or a maximum of $600,000 for multiple plaintiffs).
Fourth, churches are not liable for speculative or punitive damages, and their liability for actual damages (i.e., out-of-pocket expenses that can be substantiated by receipts and other written evidence) cannot exceed $600,000.
Fifth, a special rule applies in the case of injuries caused by the use of motor vehicles.
The South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the statute in a case challenging its validity. Doe v. American Red Cross Blood Services, 377 S.E.2d 323 (S.C. 1989). This case involved the original cap of $200,000.
• 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. Crocker v. Barr, 409 S.E.2d 368 (S.C. 1992). This case involved the original cap of $200,000. 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. The supreme court ruled that the injured member could sue his church, even though it was unincorporated. But it reduced the jury's award from $300,000 to $200,000 on the basis of a state law 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.
The Texas legislature enacted a law limiting the legal liability of charitable organizations. Section 84.006 of the Texas Code of Civil Procedure specifies:
Except as provided in section 84.007 of this Act, in any civil action brought against a nonhospital charitable organization for damages based on an act or omission by the organization or its employees or volunteers, the liability of the organization is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $500,000 for each person and $1,000,000 for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
The Act defines "charitable organization" to include charitable and religious organizations exempt from federal income taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Churches and most religious organizations will satisfy this definition. The Act permits employees of "charitable organizations" to be sued as a result of injuries caused by their negligence in the course of their employment, but their liability is limited to "money damages in a maximum amount of $500,000 for each person and $1,000,000 for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property" (i.e., the same limitations that apply to charitable organizations themselves). "Volunteers" (those serving without compensation, including officers and directors) are totally immune from liability (they cannot be sued) for injuries or death resulting from their conduct on behalf of a charitable organization so long as they were acting "in good faith and in the course or scope of [their] duties or functions within the organization." The immunity of volunteers does not cover injuries caused by the negligent use of motor vehicles, to the extent of any existing insurance coverage.
The Texas law does not apply to (1) "an act or omission that is intentional, willfully wantonly negligent, or done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others"; or (2) any charitable organization that does not have liability insurance coverage in an amount of at least "$500,000 for each person and $1,000,000 for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property."
Here is a summary of the more important features of the Texas law.
- "Cap" on church liability. The statute limits the liability of charitable organizations to "money damages in a maximum amount of $500,000 for each person and $1,000,000 for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property."
- "Cap" on personal liability. Church employees can be sued personally as a result of injuries or damages caused by their negligence in the course of their duties, but their personal liability is subject to the same dollar limitations that apply to charitable organizations.
- Definition of "charitable organization." The term charitable organization is defined broadly, and includes most churches and many religious organizations.
- Definition of "volunteer." Volunteers (uncompensated workers) cannot be sued personally as a result of injuries or damages caused by their negligent activities, except in the case of negligent operation of a motor vehicle (and then only to the extent of existing liability insurance coverage).
- Exceptions. The dollar limits do not apply in the case of "intentional, willfully or wantonly negligent" acts or omissions, or to conduct that shows a conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.
- Necessity of having insurance coverage. The dollar limits do not apply to a charitable organization that does not have liability insurance coverage in an amount of at least "$500,000 for each person and $1,000,000 for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property."