Does the Charitable Immunity Doctrine Still Exist?

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As a means of protecting volunteers from getting sued due to their activities, many states have implemented charitable immunity laws. These laws, on occasion, do offer valuable protection for ministry volunteer workers; however, the scope of these protections is not as broad as you may think.

What Is the Charitable Immunity Doctrine?

Charitable immunity is the legal doctrine that posits that a charitable organization should not be held under the law of tort.

Tort Law

A tort is an impermissible act taken by one individual against the other that ends up injuring the latter. Legally, tort is defined as a civil or private injury or wrong which results from the breaching of a legal duty. The legal duty normally stems from the expectation of society in matters regarding personal conduct. Thus, systems of tort law have been incorporated into what is termed as  “common law.” Common law is a set of laws that have been developed over the years by courts as they judge cases that are presented to them. For this reason, common law varies regionally.

In years past, a lot of courts gave charitable immunity to certain philanthropic and religious institutions. Today, very little of that immunity is left – with religious institutions no longer being immune to the law of tort in the modern world.

Why Charitable Immunity Laws Offer Only Limited Protection Today

  1. The Charitable Immunity clause does not apply to a ministry organization. Charitable immunity laws are only applicable to an individual but not the entire institution. As such, even if a religious minister is able to avoid legal consequences, the church may still be sued.
  2. The laws significantly differ from state to state. There are some states that offer significant protection to their volunteer and ministry workers. However, most states provide little to no charitable immunity protection.
  3. It only protects those on the board of a charitable organization. Charitable immunity laws are meant to protect actual volunteers from being sued, however, some state laws narrow this down to only board members of a charitable institution. Thus, a volunteer or ministry worker can still face a lawsuit if their work causes injury to someone.
  4. These laws typically prevent only specific individuals from suing. Charitable immunity laws, in most states, are fairly precise about who cannot sue volunteers or ministry staff. Thus, persons deemed as beneficiaries of the organization’s work cannot file a lawsuit; but anyone who doesn’t benefit from the institution’s efforts can still sue. For instance, if an individual gets injured while receiving free goods from a charitable organization, they may be prevented from suing the volunteer workers handling the process. Conversely, persons that got injured during the event and were not partaking any of the institution’s goods have the right to sue.
  5. The laws only apply to certain torts. If the charity worker engages in intentional criminal acts, the charitable immunity laws will not protect them. Also, they won’t be applicable in acts of gross negligence or willful misconduct. Charitable immunity laws will only apply to situations where the volunteer worker unwillingly caused harm or injury.
  6. The charitable immunity laws are not applicable to all kinds of court awards. Often, these laws will protect the church or charitable foundation from compensatory damage awards; however, they will not protect the ministry from a non-compensatory penalty or fine that the court may impose.
  7. Legal defense expenses are still incurred. Even though charitable immunity law may exempt a ministry or charity worker from legal liability, it is still up to the volunteer to seek removal from the lawsuit. For the charity worker to achieve this they will need an attorney to guide them through the process, and this costs money.

The Decline of Charitable Immunity

Charitable immunity originally started in England in 1846 and was taken up in the U.S in 1876. The theory posited was that the money held by the charities was for distribution to others. Thus, if a tort plaintiff claimed damages against the church or charity, it would jeopardize the operations of the organization.

Religious and charitable organizations enjoyed immunity from tort liability in most courts in the United States until 1942 when District of Columbia abolished the law.

Consequently, several states now follow that ruling or have minimized its effectiveness. Changes in society are what contributed to the change in charitable immunity laws. The mid-20th Century saw the rise of charity to “big business.” Thus, the piece of mind that the charitable immunity laws gave to workers and volunteers could no longer be sustained.

Nonetheless, some states still observe a certain level of charitable immunity. Those jurisdictions that still acknowledge a degree of charitable immunity often preserve the immunity for religious organizations. However, charitable hospitals no longer enjoy that privilege.

The Federal Volunteer Protection Act

Enacted in 1997, the Volunteer Protection Act was intended to offer charity workers in all states some protection from litigation. While the volunteer protection act is quite helpful, it still contains many of the limitations in the present charitable immunity laws. And surprisingly, the act dilutes the potency of the charitable laws even further. There is nothing in the volunteer act that will prevent the charitable institution from filing a suit against a volunteer whose actions had negative monetary repercussions for the organization.

Because of the remnants of charitable immunity laws in some jurisdictions, any tort claim against the ministry or charity foundation needs to be examined to see whether there is a charitable immunity clause within that state.

Additionally, the extent to which the charitable immunity law can protect your religious ministry or charitable organization tends to vary from state to state. Thus, it is imperative you also consider the Volunteer Protection Act when you are assessing protection options for your volunteers. If you are uncertain of volunteer protection laws in your jurisdiction, consult a local attorney to guide you through the applicable charitable immunity laws.

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