Hanson v. Saint Luke's United Methodist Church

Decision Date23 December 1998
Docket NumberNo. 49S02-9804-CV-228,49S02-9804-CV-228
Citation704 N.E.2d 1020,1998 WL 904830
PartiesMarta HANSON, Appellant (Plaintiff Below), v. SAINT LUKE'S UNITED METHODIST CHURCH and United Methodist South Indiana Conference, Inc., Appellees (Defendants Below).
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

Lee C. Christie, Indianapolis, for Appellant.

Nana Quay-Smith, Karl L. Mulvaney, Theodore J. Blanford, Indianapolis, for Appellees.

SHEPARD, Chief Justice.

We revisit today the question whether a member of an unincorporated association may bring a negligence action against the association to recover damages for a tort committed against her by the association or by another member. We hold that unincorporated associations are amenable to suit by their members, and we reverse the grant of summary judgment for St. Luke's. Accordingly, we overrule our existing precedents to the contrary. 1

Factual and Procedural History

At all times relevant to this case, St. Luke's United Methodist Church, in Indianapolis, was maintained and operated by its board of trustees. The board of trustees consisted of nine individuals. St. Luke's members, including Marta Hanson, do not participate in general elections to determine who will serve as trustees. Non-trustee members, including Hanson, have no control over the everyday maintenance of the church building or grounds.

At about 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 22, 1993, Hanson attended a social gathering at St. Luke's sponsored by the Nora Toastmasters, who had rented a portion of the church for the evening. Both members and non-members of the church attended the function. Over the course of the evening, some amount of snow and ice accumulated in the parking lot of the church.

After spending about two hours inside, Hanson left the church and walked toward her automobile. As she neared her car, Hanson slipped and fell. Associate Pastor Steve Miller witnessed Hanson's fall and immediately drove her to the hospital, where she received treatment for a broken arm. Miller later commented to St. Luke's business manager that the parking lot had been slick on his way into the church earlier that evening and was still slippery on his way out when he saw Hanson fall.

Hanson sued St. Luke's and its trustees for her personal injuries, alleging negligence for failure to properly maintain the parking lot, failure to inspect the parking lot for dangerous conditions, failure to remove the snow and ice from the parking lot, and failure to warn her of the dangerous conditions. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of all the defendants, 2 applying the common law rule that a member of an unincorporated association cannot sue the association for the negligence of another member. Hanson appealed that judgment.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment with regard to St. Luke's, and affirmed the summary judgment with regard to the trustees. Hanson v. Saint Luke's United Methodist Church, 682 N.E.2d 1314 (Ind.Ct.App.1997). In ruling that Hanson may maintain a personal injury lawsuit against the church, the court applied an exception to the common law rule, an exception that this Court has never formally adopted. 3 We granted St. Luke's petition for transfer.

Summary Judgment Standard of Review

A grant of summary judgment requires that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ind.Trial Rule 56(C). On appeal from summary judgment, the reviewing appellate court faces the same issues that were before the trial court, and analyzes them in the same way. Ambassador Fin. Services, Inc. v. Indiana Nat'l Bank, 605 N.E.2d 746, 751 (Ind.1992). Although the nonmovant has the burden of demonstrating the grant of summary judgment was erroneous, we carefully assess the trial court's decision to ensure that the nonmovant was not improperly denied her day in court. Colonial Penn Ins. Co. v. Guzorek, 690 N.E.2d 664 (Ind.1997).

Back to Calvary

In this case, the trial court applied controlling precedent from this Court, Calvary Baptist Church, 522 N.E.2d 371, in granting summary judgment for the defendants. Hanson, 682 N.E.2d at 1316. We now choose to accept the invitations of the Courts of Appeals 4 and revisit the rule of Calvary.

A. The Common Law Rule of Calvary

As a general rule, a member of an unincorporated association 5 may not sue the association itself for injuries suffered as a result of the tortious acts of the association or its members. Calvary, 522 N.E.2d at 374. The rule rests upon the doctrine of imputed liability. Under the theory of imputed liability:

[M]embers of an unincorporated association are engaged in a joint enterprise. The negligence of each member in the prosecution of that enterprise is imputable to each and every other member so that the member who has suffered damages through the tortious conduct of another member of the association may not recover from the association for such damage. It would be akin to the person suing himself as each member becomes both a principal and an agent as to all other members for the actions of the group itself.

Id. at 374-75.

The imputed liability doctrine requires that the association's membership is engaged in a joint enterprise. 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 158 (1966). The requirement that the members of an unincorporated association be engaged in a joint enterprise does not mean, however, that at the time of the accident at issue the members must be engaged in some specific "group activity," such as repairing the church's roof. Biereichel, 693 N.E.2d at 637. This requirement is generally satisfied in the church congregation setting in that the congregation's members are thought to be engaged in the joint enterprise of worship and/or maintaining a premises for worshiping. See Claudia G. Catalano, Annotation, Liability for Personal Injury or Death Allegedly Caused by Defect in Church Premises, 8 A.L.R.5th 1, 31-35, 1992 WL 767605 (1992) (citing cases involving church member-plaintiffs "engaged in the joint enterprise of maintaining the building in which they worshipped," and "engaged in the joint enterprise of worshipping God in fellowship together").

Applying the common law rule, we held in Calvary that a church member who had been injured when he fell off a ladder while repairing the church's roof could not sue the church in its own name. 522 N.E.2d at 372. The plaintiff in Calvary argued that the common law doctrine, which insulated unincorporated associations from suit by their members, was based on the historical and obsolete idea that such associations were not legal entities, and that the passage of Indiana Trial Rules 17(B) and (E) permitted suits such as his. 6 Id. The Court rejected this argument, noting that Rules 17(B) and (E) "were directed to the suability of unincorporated associations as parties" and did not change the substantive rule of nonliability of unincorporated associations to their members. 7 Id. at 373.

B. The Exception to the Common Law Rule

While the common law rule is followed by many American jurisdictions, 8 several states have recognized an exception to the rule, the wisdom of which this Court acknowledged but declined to adopt in Calvary. There, the Court stated:

Although we recognize the wisdom of applying an exception to the general rule in the case of large unincorporated associations such as labor unions having a hierarchy of structure that drastically changes the relationship of membership to association and the control that a member has in its affairs, we find it clearly demonstrated that no such question was presented in regard to the Calvary Baptist Church and its members.

522 N.E.2d at 375. The establishment of an exception to the general rule is frequently attributed to the California case of Marshall v. International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, 57 Cal.2d 781, 22 Cal.Rptr. 211, 371 P.2d 987 (Cal.1962), in which the California Supreme Court allowed a union member to bring a tort action against the union. The court said that the justifications underlying the traditional rule no longer represented the reality of certain modern associations, 9 such as some labor unions. In that instance, the member and the union are distinct, with the union representing the common or group interests of its members, as distinguished from their personal or private interest.

"Structurally and functionally, a labor union is an institution which involves more than the private or personal interests of its members. It represents organized, institutional activity as contrasted with wholly individual activity." ... The union engages in a multitude of business and other official concerted activities, none of which can be said to be the private undertakings of its members.

Id. at 989 (quoting United States v. White, 322 U.S. 694, 701-02, 64 S.Ct. 1248, 88 L.Ed. 1542 (1944)). The court concluded that the common law rule barring suits by members against their associations should not apply when: 1) the unincorporated association has a legal existence separate from its members; and 2) the members do not exercise control over the operations of the association. See id. at 990-91.

While the Marshall decision limited its holding to the case of labor unions, id. at 991 n. 1, the court later extended the application of the exception to different types of unincorporated associations that satisfy the Marshall criteria. White v. Cox, 17 Cal.App.3d 824, 95 Cal.Rptr. 259 (1971).

In the present case, the Court of Appeals found that Hanson's relation to St. Luke's warranted the application of the Marshall exception. After examining facts such as the size of the church's congregation, the hierarchy of the church's government, and the existence of a set of by-laws guiding the church's decisionmaking, the court concluded:

that the reasons supporting the general rule, including the prevention of collusive lawsuits and the avoidance of suits by a member against herself, do not apply in ...

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