A woman who fell and broke her leg as she was leaving a funeral reception cannot sue the church even though she was not a member of the church or the decedent’s family, under the ruling of a Westmoreland County circuit judge.
Judge Harry T. Taliaferro III dismissed the injured woman’s lawsuit based on the Virginia common law doctrine of charitable immunity.
The decision comes in France v. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (VLW 013-8-112).
Plaintiff Helen H. France was a friend of the family of Viola Hutt, who died in August 2009. The funeral was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal, a very small, rural church, according to Taliaferro’s letter opinion.
The church was crowded to overflowing, with 150 to 200 in attendance. France had to view the service standing in a hallway.
France knew many of the people there. She had been to funerals at the church twice before. For more than an hour after the service, she stayed at the reception in the church parish hall, eating and reminiscing with people she had not seen in a long time, according to the judge’s summary of the evidence.
As the crowd diminished, France stood to leave. She planned to return to work at the health department where she had worked for 19 years. As she left the parish hall, accompanied by a co-worker, she stepped off a handicapped ramp, fell and broke her leg.
The church had an insurance policy providing $1 million in coverage for personal injury claims. The policy provided for defense of such claims.
After France sued the church, the two sides agreed on a joint exhibit of evidence for the judge to consider, including 12 pages of France’s deposition.
France conceded that St. Paul’s is a charitable organization. The case turned on whether she was a beneficiary of the church’s charitable purposes at the time of the injury.
Because she was not a member of the Hutt family or the church and was there only to pay her respects, she was only an invitee or stranger to the church, France contended. Taliaferro, however, cited cases interpreting Virginia law in which churches were immunized from injury claims, even from a visiting tourist.
“We disagree with Ms. France that her attending the funeral service and reception at St. Paul’s was unrelated to its charitable purpose,” Taliaferro wrote.
The scope of the charity was not limited to the decedent’s family or just to members of the church, the judge said. The purpose and message of Christian burial is far broader, he said.
“The purpose of the Christian funeral service conducted in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s was to bring spiritual solace and comfort to those bereaved by the death of Viola Hutt and the purpose of the reception afterwards was to bring those persons together for fellowship in the church parish hall,” Taliaferro wrote.
France was a family friend who knew the nature of the funeral service she was attending, Taliaferro said. Positioning herself where she could see the service, she became part of the congregation, the judge said.
“Further, she availed herself of food, refreshments and fellowship at the reception,” Taliaferro said. “Ms. France was clearly a direct beneficiary of the charitable purposes of St. Paul’s,” he wrote.
The judge rejected the contention that the church’s insurance policy obviated the doctrine of charitable immunity. Charitable immunity protects only from simple negligence and charitable institutions reasonably insure themselves against claims of higher negligence, he said.
The General Assembly, rather than the courts, is the appropriate body to consider any abrogation of the doctrine of charitable immunity, Taliaferro said, dismissing France’s lawsuit.