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Charitable Immunity Bars Church Slip & Fall Claim

Deborah Elkins//October 22, 2013

Charitable Immunity Bars Church Slip & Fall Claim

Deborah Elkins//October 22, 2013//

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A woman who fell and was injured after she left a church where she attended the funeral of a friend cannot sue the church for negligence; the Westmoreland County Circuit Court says the church has charitable immunity from the suit as plaintiff was a beneficiary of its charitable purpose.

Plaintiff contends that because she was not a member of the decedent’s family or a member of the church, and was only there to pay her respects, she was an invitee or stranger and not a beneficiary of the church’s charitable purpose. She asserts that no benefits, pecuniary or otherwise, were conferred upon her by the church and her relationship to the church and its charitable purpose was too attenuated to support defendants’ claim of charitable immunity.

The Supreme Court of Virginia has stated that a person is a beneficiary of charity if he or she has a “beneficial relationship” to the charitable organization. The benefit received from the organization need not be financial. Virginia circuit court cases have applied charitable immunity to a broad spectrum of church-related activities.

Plaintiff argues as controlling authority cases involving charitable hospitals that have not applied the doctrine of charitable immunity to invitees injured on hospital premises. The plaintiffs in these charitable hospital cases were not themselves recipients of hospital-provided medical care, nor did they benefit from the hospital charitable purpose simply from going to the building. She also argues she cannot as an individual or as a member of a group be placed within the category of those who were the object of the charitable purpose of the church.

We disagree with plaintiff that her attending the funeral service and reception at the church was unrelated to its charitable purpose. The purpose of the Christian funeral service conducted in the sanctuary of the church was to bring spiritual solace and comfort to those bereaved by the death of plaintiff’s friend and the purpose of the reception afterwards was to bring those persons together for fellowship in the church parish hall. The scope of the charitable purpose of the church conferred by the conduct of the funeral service and fellowship in its parish hall was not limited to the decedent’s family or just members of the church. The spiritual purpose and message of Christian burial is far broader in its meaning and scope.

Having gone to funerals twice before at this church, plaintiff knew the nature of the service she was going to. Although she could not get into the church proper, she positioned herself in the hallway so she could see the service inside. In this manner, she was a part of the congregation. Further, she availed herself of food, refreshments and fellowship at the reception. She was clearly a beneficiary of the charitable purposes of defendant St. Paul’s. It was not material that she was injured on church property as she was leaving the reception following the funeral.

Lastly, the court declines to rule that the doctrine of charitable immunity has no application because St. Paul’s Church has insurance that covers the risk and the cost to defend the claim made in this suit. Charitable immunity is limited to ordinary negligence, the only claim made by plaintiff.

Plea of charitable immunity is sustained.

France v. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Taliaferro) No. CL 11-100, Oct. 7, 2013; Westmoreland County Cir.Ct.; Robert W. Partin for plaintiff; Tracy Ann Houck for defendant. VLW 013-8-112, 6 pp.

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