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Newsletter > January 2016 > "Liability of Members of Unincorporated Associations"
Liability of Members of Unincorporated Associations
Tim Burke, Manley Burke, firstname.lastname@example.org
In September of 2015 a Connecticut trial judge issued a decision1 which discussed at length the responsibility of individual members of a chapter for injuries to third parties caused by other members of a chapter. The case grew out of a death and injury which occurred as the Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter at Yale University was preparing for a tailgate party. It was to be part of the festivities associated with the annual Harvard-Yale football game. A U-Haul truck carrying supplies, beer and people to the tailgate hit and killed one person and injured a second. The truck was rented by the chapter president and driven by another member of the chapter. Other members of the chapter were in the truck at the time.
A total of four lawsuits grew out of this incident. Motions for Summary Judgment by individual chapter member defendants in all four cases were considered in the Court’s decision.
The individual members argued that mere membership of the chapter should not make them liable for the negligence of the member who drove the truck. While there is logic to that argument, it is not that simple.
The fraternity was an unincorporated voluntary association. In Connecticut, unincorporated associations may sue and be sued2 but in these Sigma Phi Epsilon matters, as the Court put it, the issue to be decided was “under what circumstances, if any, are the individual members of a voluntary, unincorporated association liable for the negligent acts of another member, when those negligent acts occur in the course of performing acts at the behest of the association. . .”
Responding to the argument that membership alone is insufficient to establish liability, Plaintiffs argued that the principal of agency make each member liable for the negligent acts of another member.
Describing unincorporated association as having a “formless amorphous nature” the court acknowledged the “dearth of case law which discusses, defines or otherwise clarifies the relationship rights and responsibilities of members either to each other, the association or third parties”.
Earlier decisions had found that the individual members of an unincorporated association organized for profit could be held liable in both tort and contract and required to respond to debt undertaken by the association or injury caused to a third party by activities undertaken on behalf of the association. However, in examining the actions of members of associations that were not organized for profit, an American Legion Post3, a Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie,4 and a Police Athletic League,5 courts required more than mere membership in order for individual members to be held liable. Those members must have had something to do with the actions which caused the injury.
Making this decision broadly instructive regarding the liability of members of an unincorporated association, the Court examined what high Courts in several other states have decided with regard to this issue.
In Maine, a guest at a National Guard Armory Committee’s New Year’s Eve party fell and was injured in an icy parking lot. The Court said:
“A voluntary unincorporated association, formed to accomplish a common purpose, is duty bound to use the same care to avoid injury to others as natural persons are individually, but mere membership in the associate body does not make all members liable for any and all unlawful or negligent acts of their associates. . . . liability attaches only to those members of the association who are shown to have actively participated in the affair resulting in Plaintiff’s injury.”6
Apparently not a lot was required to meet that “actively participated” standard given that the Court upheld verdicts against individual members based simply on their attendance at meetings planning the event or because they were officers of the association who are responsible for the event’s activities.
The Florida Supreme Court,7 required more active participation by individual members of an association before they could be held liable. In the Florida case, members of a local Mystic Shrine Temple were sued by a Plaintiff who was injured during an initiation ceremony. A shotgun with blanks was fired during a skit that was part of the plaintiff’s initiation. The initiate lost an eye. Those who were “active participants in the events giving rise to the injury” were held liable while those who were “simply in the audience” were not. Florida required at least some direct participation in the act of negligence which caused the injury.
A California Court of Appeals8 held that individual members of a voluntary association could be held liable for the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by one of its members, when that member was operating the vehicle for the association and there was evidence that each member approved and authorized her operation of the vehicle for those purposes. While finding that it did not have to be proven that individual members had approved or authorized the negligent operation, the Court did make it clear that mere membership was insufficient. But a member could be vicariously liable for the acts of the other where the individual members had “authorized, approved, actively participated in, aided and abeted or ratified the events and conduct giving rise to the injury”.
The Connecticut Court denied the Motions for Summary Judgment filed by individual members of the Sig Ep chapter finding that there remained genuine issues of material fact suggesting that, while facts would still have to be proven at trial, a jury could conclude that there was liability based on a variety of different circumstances including membership on the Executive Board which planned and organized the tailgate events; being an officer responsible for planning or overseeing the event; being a member present in the cab of the truck; being a member present in the back of the truck; or participation at the tailgate function itself. Those were all items remaining to be considered by a jury at trial. Not necessarily would every one of those result in members being held liable, but the possibility exists.
The lesson here is mixed and depends on the law of the state where the injury happens. But it is clear that under certain circumstances a chapter member may share in the liability of the tortfeasor whose conduct was undertaken on behalf of the chapter.
1 Short v. Ross, 2015 Conn. Super. Lexis 2374.
2 Conn.Gen.Stat §52-76, Title 52- “Civil Actions” Chapter 897-“Parties and Appearances.”
3 Karp v. American Legion Dept. of Connecticut, Inc., 1996 Conn. Super. Lexis 1865, 1996 WL 457012(Conn.Super.).
4 Hatton v. Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #4097, 551 N.E. 2nd 470 (1990).
5 State v. Seymour Police Athletic League, 2003 Conn. Super. Lexis 1920, 2003 wl21716190 (Conn. Super.Shapiro, J.)
6 Libby v. Perry, 311 A 2nd 527 (Me. 1973).
7 Guyton v. Howard, 525 So. 2nd 948 (Fla 1988).
8 Steuer v. Phelps, 41 Cal. App 3rd 468, 116 Cal. Rptr. 61 (1974).