Hanson v. St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 49A02-9609-CV-597

Decision Date11 July 1997
Docket NumberNo. 49A02-9609-CV-597,49A02-9609-CV-597
PartiesMarta HANSON, Appellant-Plaintiff, v. ST. LUKE'S UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, John Street, Pete Burks, Liz Tondra, Charles C. Brandt, Tom Eggers, Scott Alexander, Barb Jackson, Merv Warnock and April Sterling, as Trustees of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, Appellees-Defendants.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court
OPINION

BAKER, Judge.

Appellant-plaintiff Marta Hanson appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of appellees-defendants St. Luke's United Methodist Church (St.Luke's) and John Street, Pete Burks, Liz Tondra, Charles C. Brandt, Tom Eggers, Scott Alexander, Barb Jackson, Merv Warnock and April Sterling, as Trustees of St. Luke's United Methodist Church (Trustees). Specifically, Hanson contends that the trial court erred in applying the rule that a member of an unincorporated association cannot sue the association for the negligence of another member to preclude her claim against St. Luke's and the Trustees.

FACTS

The facts in this case are not in dispute. In 1993, Hanson was a member of St. Luke's, an unincorporated association 1 located in Indianapolis, Indiana. At that time, St. Luke's had approximately 3,800 members, including nine volunteer trustees. The Trustees were not elected by the church's membership; rather, they were nominated and approved by various groups within the church.

On the evening of December 22, 1993, Hanson attended a social function at St. Luke's which was sponsored by the Nora Toastmasters. Following the meeting, Hanson was walking across the parking lot towards her car when she slipped and fell on ice and snow on the lot. As a result of her fall, Hanson suffered injuries.

Thereafter, on March 9, 1995, Hanson filed a complaint against St. Luke's and the United Methodist South Indiana Conference, Inc. (Conference), alleging that they were negligent and careless in failing to inspect and maintain the parking lot, failing to discover the dangerous condition, failing to remove foreign substances and failing to warn her of the danger. In response, St. Luke's filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that Hanson, as a member of an unincorporated association, could not maintain a lawsuit against that association. The Conference also filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that it was a separate entity from St. Luke's and, therefore, owed no duty to Hanson. On December 22, 1995, Hanson amended her complaint to include the Trustees as defendants and filed a motion to dismiss the Conference. On May 24, 1996, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of St. Luke's and, thereafter, clarified its summary judgment order to include the Trustees. Hanson now appeals.

DISCUSSION AND DECISION 2

Hanson contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of St. Luke's and the Trustees. Initially, we note our standard of review. When reviewing the grant of summary judgment, our standard is the same as the trial court. Fetz v. Phillips, 591 N.E.2d 644, 646 (Ind.Ct.App.1992). Summary judgment is proper when the designated pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits show there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Hamilton v. Roger Sherman Architects Group, Inc., 565 N.E.2d 1136, 1137 (Ind.Ct.App.1991); Ind.Trial Rule 56(C). When the parties do not dispute the facts material to the claim, our task is to determine whether the trial court correctly applied the law to the undisputed facts. State ex rel. Indiana State Bd. of Dental Examiners v. Judd, 554 N.E.2d 829, 830 (Ind.Ct.App.1990). This court will affirm the grant of summary judgment if it is based upon any legal theory which is consistent with the facts disclosed in the record. Hupp v. Hill, 576 N.E.2d 1320, 1323 (Ind.Ct.App.1991).

I. St. Luke's

First, Hanson challenges the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of St. Luke's. Specifically, Hanson argues that the trial court should have applied an exception to the rule prohibiting members of an unincorporated association from maintaining lawsuits against the association because the reasons behind the rule do not exist in the case of an association as large and structured as St. Luke's. Additionally, Hanson argues that public policy concerns mandate that she be able to maintain her lawsuit against St. Luke's.

As a general rule, a member of an unincorporated association cannot sue the association for the tortious acts of one or more of its members. Calvary Baptist Church v. Joseph, 522 N.E.2d 371, 374 (Ind.1988). The reason for the general rule, as described by our supreme court in Calvary, is to avoid collusive lawsuits:

The theory of the general rule is that the members 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. Based upon this reasoning, the Calvary court held that a member of a small, community church who had been injured when he fell off a ladder while assisting in repairing the church's roof could not sue the church in its own name. Although the court applied the general rule in Calvary, it did note that some jurisdictions had adopted an exception to the general rule where the unincorporated association has "a hierarchy of structure that drastically changes the relationship of membership to association and the control that a member has in its affairs." Id. at 375. The court also noted the wisdom in such an exception because it avoids "sacrificing reality to theoretical formalism." Id. Nevertheless, the court declined to adopt the exception where the facts clearly did not support one. Id.

The exception noted in Calvary is based on two California cases. Specifically, in Marshall v. Int'l Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, 57 Cal.2d 781, 22 Cal.Rptr. 211, 371 P.2d 987 (1962), the California Supreme Court recognized an exception to the general rule in the case of a labor union. In Marshall, a labor union member filed a complaint against the union after he was injured by a fall in the union's parking lot. After the union obtained summary judgment on the grounds that a member of an unincorporated association cannot sue the association, the union member appealed. Id. at 988. On appeal, the California Supreme Court discussed the rationales behind the general rule and the rule's application in the case of labor unions. The court determined that in many aspects labor unions differ from other unincorporated associations. In particular, the court found:

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's existence in fact, and for some purposes in law is as perpetual as that of any corporation, not being dependent upon the life of any member. It normally operates under its own constitution, rules and by-laws which, in controversies between member and union, are often enforced by the courts. 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 the members. Duly elected union officers have no authority to do or sanction anything other than that which the union may lawfully do; nor have they authority to act for the members in matters affecting only the individual rights of such members.

Id. at 989 (citing United States of America v. White, 322 U.S. 694, 701-702, 64 S.Ct. 1248, 1252-53, 88 L.Ed. 1542 (1944)). The court then determined that the general rule should not apply under the following circumstances: 1) when the unincorporated association has a legal existence separate from its members; and 2) when the members do not exercise control over the operations of the association. Id. 22 Cal.Rptr. at 214, 371 P.2d at 990. Based upon this test, the court held that the union member could maintain his claim against the labor union.

Similarly, in White v. Cox, 17 Cal.App.3d 824, 95 Cal.Rptr. 259 (1971), the California Court of Appeals applied the exception in the case of a condominium association. In White, a condominium owner sued his condominium association for injuries he suffered after tripping over a water sprinkler in one of the complex's common areas. Id. 95 Cal.Rptr. at 259. After the association was granted summary judgment, the owner appealed. In its opinion, the California appeals court discussed the two-part test enunciated in Marshall and noted the further erosion of the general rule in the years since Marshall was decided. In particular, the White court found that "[s]ince 1962, the trend of case law has flowed toward full recognition of the unincorporated association as a separate legal entity." Id. 95 Cal.Rptr. at 261. The court then examined the nature of condominium complexes, including the fact that they are operated by management associations controlled by a governing body, which generally "functions as a distinct and separate personality from the owners themselves" and that condominium owners generally only have a tenancy-in-common interest in the complex's common areas. Id. at 262. Based upon the characteristics of the association, the court determined that condominium associations could be...

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