Andrews v. Young Men's Christian Ass'n of Des Moines

Citation226 Iowa 374,284 N.W. 186
Decision Date15 February 1939
Docket NumberNo. 44403.,44403.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa


Appeal from District Court, Polk County; Russell Jordan, Judge.

Action at law to recover damages suffered by the deceased, and sustained by his estate. Defendant has appealed from a judgment for plaintiff.

The judgment is affirmed.Miller, Miller & Miller, of Des Moines, for appellant.

Gillespie & Moody, of Des Moines, for appellee.

BLISS, Justice.

This action was originally brought by Arthur Andrews, and on his death, his widow, as administratrix of his estate, was substituted as plaintiff. There is little controversy as to the facts, either as pleaded or as testified to. The defendant is a corporation, organized and existing under the statutes of Iowa, and has been engaged in the work and activities usual to such associations. On December 31, 1935, the deceased, who was then employed by the Works Progress Administration of the United States Government, through some arrangement between his superiors and the defendant, was doing general repair work in a building owned and operated by the defendant in Des Moines. He was an excellent carpenter and very good at lock work. On the day in question, he and the superintendent of defendant's building were repairing a bracket on the basement door of the passenger elevator shaft. The superintendent had twice told the defendant's employee, who was operating the elevator, not to bring the elevator below the first floor, until he told him otherwise. The deceased was informed of this by the superintendent. No further instructions were given to the elevator operator. To do the repair work it was necessary to keep the collapsible doors open, and for the deceased to mount a ladder in the shaft pit to remove the bracket, and after welding it, to replace it. The superintendent aided him by holding a light. As the deceased was tightening the last screw, the elevator descended below the first floor and knocked the superintendent out of the doorway, and crumpled the body of the deceased on the ladder. He was taken to the hospital where he remained in a helpless and most painful condition until his death on February 26, 1937.

The plaintiff alleged freedom from contributory negligence on the part of the deceased and charged the injuries to the defendant's negligence. The defendant denied negligence and alleged that it was a corporation, not for profit, but solely for religious and charitable purposes. It introduced in evidence its charter, as amended and renewed, showing that the purpose of the association was the teaching and the study of the Bible among the young men of Des Moines and vicinity and to furnish facilities for mental, physical and religious development. Under its articles it had the power to acquire and hold real estate, to lease any portion thereof, and to devote its revenues to the furtherance of the objects of the association. It had the power to sell, mortgage, or incumber any of the real estate. Its renewal charter provided that it was not organized for pecuniary profit. Its general secretary testified that it was conducted in accord with the provisions of its charters, and was operated as a character building institution to help young men and boys to a higher plane of living. Membership fees were charged and rental for the boys living in the building, but these fees and charges were not, and were not intended to be sufficient to meet expenses. The deficit between income and outgo was met by an annual community drive for funds.

The deceased was not on the payroll of the defendant. Arrangements had been made by the W.P.A. through the Recreation Commission for him to work for the defendant, and in this arrangement the defendant was not to pay the deceased anything.

At the close of all of the testimony, the defendant filed a motion containing several grounds for a directed verdict in its behalf. The first ground, and the one we will first discuss, is based upon the fact that the defendant is a charitable corporation operating without pecuniary profit to its officers or to any one else, and for that reason was not liable to the plaintiff for any negligence on the part of any of its employees or representatives. The motion was overruled. The defendant raised this and other objections by requested instructions, exceptions to instructions, and by motion for new trial. In all of these matters the court held adversely to the defendant. The defendant has appealed from all of these rulings and from the judgment for the plaintiff entered on the jury's verdict.

I. The question of the liability of a charitable institution to respond in damages for the negligence of its servants, employees or those in charge has been many times before the courts. It is one upon which there has been, and is, not only a conflict of decisions among the courts, but also a remarkable diversity of opinion among those of the courts which agree in their ultimate decision, as to the correct reason, or ground for so deciding. Every reason and ground advanced has been vulnerable to attack and criticism, and has been attacked and criticised.

Perhaps the first basis offered for this immunity from tort responsibility was the trust fund doctrine. The reason given therefor being that if the fund or property, which had been set apart for charitable uses, could be subjected to the payments of claims of persons injured through the negligence of those administering the trust, it would in time become so depleted as to defeat the purposes of its creators or donors, and would dry up its sources, since no one would donate to a charitable purpose, if he thought that his donation would be diverted to the payment of such negligence claims. The first case announcing the doctrine of the non-liability of the trustees of a charitable trust for the negligence or misconduct of the trustees was the Foeffees of Heriot's Hospital v. John Ross in 6 Clark & Finelley's Reports 507, decided by the House of Lords in 1846. George Heriot, jeweller of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, by his last will, in 1623, directed that the residuum of his estate be devoted, in perpetuity, to the founding of a hospital, in Edinburgh, “for the maintenance, relief, bringing up, and education of so many poor fatherless boys, freemens' sons of that town,” as the means would provide. Ross was denied admission and recovered damages. In reversing the judgment, the House of Lords, speaking through Lord Chancellor Cottenham, with the concurrence of Lords Brougham and Campbell, and on the authority of its decision in Duncan v. Findlater, volume 6 of the same reports, page 894, decided in 1839, said:

“The question then comes to this,-whether by the law of Scotland a person who claims damages from those who are managers of a trust fund, in respect of their management of that fund, can make it liable in payment. It is obvious that it would be a direct violation, in all cases, of the purposes of a trust, if this could be done; for there is not any person who ever created a trust fund that provided for payment out of it of damages to be recovered from those who had the management of the fund. No such provision has been made here. There is a trust, and there are persons intended to manage it for the benefit of those who are to be the objects of the charity. To give damages out of a trust fund would not be to apply it to those objects whom the author of the fund had in view, but would be to divert it to a completely different purpose.”

Both the Findlater and the Heriot cases and also a similar decision in Holliday v. The Vestry of St. Leonard, 11 Common Bench N.S. 192, were overruled by the House of Lords, in 1866, in the cases of Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, Trustees v. Gibbs et al., and v. Pierce et al., 11 H. of L. Cases 686, 14 Weekly Reporter 872, 14 Law Times Rep. 677. In those cases actions were brought against the trustees to recover damages for injury to a ship and cargo, through negligence in maintaining the dock. The trustees contended that they were not liable since they were not paid and all dock dues were spent in paying for and maintaining the dock, and any surplus was to be used in reducing the docking charges. The trustees were nevertheless held liable. Since that time, as stated by the Supreme Court of Ontario, in Lavere v. Smith's Falls Public Hospital, 1915, 35 Ontario Law Rep. 98, the trust fund theory has no longer “any footing” in the law of England or Ontario.

The first court in this country to proclaim its adherence to the trust fund doctrine was the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in 1876, in McDonald v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 120 Mass. 432, 21 Am.Rep. 529. It gave the early English cases as its authority, apparently oblivious of the fact that the same court which had given the doctrine life, had put a quietus on it ten years before. Following the lead of Massachusetts, other courts in this country adopted the same rule. Some of them, however, fearful of a rule which practically placed charitable institutions above and beyond the law with respect to non-liability for their negligence, began to modify the rule. They refused to permit exemption from liability unless the charitable institution had shown due care in the selection of its servants and agents. Such an exception is wholly inconsistent with, and a repudiation of the trust fund doctrine, since an enforcement of the exception would, itself, effect a depletion of the trust fund. If the trust fund doctrine is sound, an institution, engaged in public charitable, eleemosynary, or religious work, could not be held responsible in tort to any plaintiff, so far as trust property might be used to discharge the liability. This doctrine has very generally been disapproved and rejected in this country. 13 R.C.L. 946; 11 C.J. 374, 378; Geiger v. Simpson Methodist-Episcopal Church, 174 Minn. 389, 219 N.W. 463, 62 A.L.R. 716;Bruce...

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