A Westmoreland County circuit judge has decided that a woman who suffered a broken leg while leaving a funeral reception at a church cannot sue for her injuries because of Virginia’s charitable immunity law, reports Virginia Lawyers Weekly.
Judge Harry T. Taliaferro III ruled that the plaintiff, Helen H. France, who was neither a member of the church nor a family member of the deceased, could not sue the church because of a charitable immunity law that protects charitable institutions from simple negligence.
Viola Hutt passed away in August 2009, and France, a friend of the family, attended the funeral service and reception at St. Paul’s Episcopal. Between 150 and 200 people were in attendance, rendering the small church crowded and overflowing. France was forced to watch the service from a hallway.
France knew many people at the service, and chatted with them during the reception afterwards, helping herself to food and beverages that the church provided. As France was leaving the church to return to work, she stepped off of a handicapped ramp, and broke her leg in the fall.
France filed a lawsuit against the church, which carries an insurance policy of $1 million in coverage for personal injury claims. The two sides agreed to present a joint evidence exhibition for the judge’s consideration.
France conceded that the church was a chartable institution, and so the case rested on whether or not France was a beneficiary of their charitable purposes when the injury occurred. Although France argued that she was an invitee or stranger to the church, as she was not a member of the church and was not a family member of the deceased, Taliaferro interpreted Virginia law so as churches were immune from injury claims even in the case of a visiting tourist.
Taliaferro found that France was a beneficiary of the church’s charitable purposes. France positioned herself where she could see the service, and therefore became part of the congregation. Taliaferro also cited the beverages and food France consumed during the reception, calling her “a direct beneficiary of the charitable purposes of St. Paul’s.”
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