Many people expect that all negligent actors can be held liable for damages. In Virginia, however, charities are immune for acts of ordinary negligence. This means that an injured party, even if a member or beneficiary of the charity, cannot sue a charity or its employees, provided due care had been exercised in selecting and retaining the employees.
A few notable nuances apply to this general rule. First, immunity is not granted to an invitee or stranger who does not receive any benefit from the charity. For example, a patron, who was not a beneficiary of the charity, injured at the charity’s festival can pursue a claim. The immunity does apply to an injured person who is a beneficiary of the charitable organization. For example, in one Supreme Court case, a YMCA member could not maintain a lawsuit for damages against the YMCA, as the member was a beneficiary of the “charitable bounty of the YMCA” when she used its facilities.
Second, charitable immunity only applies to ordinary negligence, not gross negligence or willful or wanton negligence. Ordinary negligence is generally described as pure carelessness. Gross negligence occurs when a person shows indifference to another or an utter disregard of prudence that amounts to a complete neglect of another person’s safety. Willful and wanton means that a person is acting consciously in disregard of another person’s rights or aware that his conduct probably would cause injury to another. In a general sense, when the conduct approaches the level of purposeful or intentional, then the conduct is not protected by immunity.
Third, the charity has to meet the test established by the Supreme Court of Virginia. A court will examine two distinct elements to determine whether an entity is, in actuality, a charitable organization. The court first looks at the powers and purposes set forth in the entity’s governing documents to learn whether the entity is maintained for gain or profit. Then, the manner in which the entity operates is also examined. In other words, both the form and substance of the corporation’s purpose and operations are under the microscope. For example, a YMCA in Virginia qualified as a charitable organization under this test.
Charitable immunity can be a rather nuanced doctrine that needs close examination. Factual issues vary for each case. PLDR Law is well versed with the intricacies of this doctrine and can help clients navigate this landscape.