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Charitable Immunity: Does It Go too Far?

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If you are injured as a result of someone else’s failure to exercise reasonable care, you can bring a straightforward negligence lawsuit, right?

Well, not so fast. Your ability to recover sometimes depends on who you are suing.

While it may seem like the same negligence law should apply to all defendants equally, over the years courts across the nation have carved out exceptions for different types of defendants. One of these exceptions is known as “charitable immunity.”

Charitable immunity can be thought of as a special type of defense that only charitable organizations can claim when they are sued for negligence. What that means in practice, is that if you sue certain charitable organizations — such as churches, nonprofits, even some hospitals — then you have to prove a greater level of negligence than would ordinarily be required. For example, to recover in a typical negligence case, a plaintiff has to prove that the defendant did not exercise the care that a reasonable person would have exercised. That is what is called “ordinary negligence.”

If you happened to be injured by a organization deemed to fall under the protection of charitable immunity, however, then you have to prove what is called "gross negligence," which means that you have to prove the defendant acted with an unreasonable high degree of risk and failed to exercise even the slightest care in protecting others. That is why it’s called charitable "immunity" — because charitable organizations are essentially immune from a negligence suit. Only when their behavior is particularly egregious can they finally be held accountable.

There are many who think that this doctrine doesn’t seem very fair; after all, it is not as if a plaintiff chooses who injures him or her. But there are some long-held justifications for charitable immunity. For example, some courts say it is necessary to protect the donations people make to a charity and ensure that money donated is spent on a charity’s activities and not lengthy litigation. Such a justification notwithstanding, it is not good news for a person who was injured by the negligence of a charitable organization.

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.