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Charitable immunity

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Title: Charitable immunity  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Captain of the ship doctrine, Conflict of laws in the United States, Tort
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Charitable immunity

Charitable immunity is a tort law. It originated in 19th-century Great Britain.[1][2]


The early form of charitable immunity in [3]

In Heriot's Hospital, plaintiff Ross brought an action against a charitable trust which had been established for a home for fatherless boys, contending that he had been excluded from the home even though he was fatherless and otherwise qualified for the charitable benefits. By the time his case was determined, Ross was too old for admission, and the question was whether he was entitled to damages from the trust funds. The House of Lords held that he was not. In the House of Lords, Lord Cottenham, in dictum, pronounced that an award of damages out of a trust fund "would not be to apply it to those objects which the author of the fund had in view, but would be to divert it to a completely different purpose". Heriot's Hospital was not a tort claim and did not address the issue whether a charity is liable to those whom it has wrongfully injured. Heriot's Hospital repeated an earlier dictum from Lord Cottenham in Duncan v. Findlater, 6 Cl. & Fin. 894 (1839), which decided, unremarkably, that highway trustees, under a public road act, were not liable for the negligence of independent contractors.

A blanket waiver from suit for charities did not exist anywhere at common law until it was adopted in England in 1861.[4] Moreover, the concept of immunity had no sooner crept into English law than it was decisively repudiated. By 1866, the dictum of Duncan v. Findlater (and by implication that of Heriot's Hospital) was overruled by Mersey Docks Trustees v. Gibbs, LR 1 HL 93, 11 Eng Rep 1500 (1866).[5]

Between the 1940s and 1992, almost every state in the United States had abrogated or limited the charitable immunity doctrine.[6][7] The doctrine has also been abandoned in Britain and Canada.[8]


The doctrine has especially been relevant, or discussed, in the context of child sexual abuse[1][8] and medical malpractice.[7]

Under the charitable immunity doctrine, it was still possible to sue employees or volunteers of charitable institutions, so the doctrine's existence encouraged other legal arguments, such as the "captain of the ship" argument that a surgeon is responsible for everything that happens in an operating room.[9]


  1. ^ a b Marci Hamilton (November 29, 2007). "How the Push for Religious Accommodation Can Go Too Far: Two Important Recent Examples". 
  2. ^ "Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada - Charitable Immunity". 
  3. ^ Feoffees of Heriot’s Hosp. V. Ross, 8 Eng Rep 1508 (1846) (discussed in Callopy v. Newark Eye & Ear Infirmary, 141 A.2d at 278).
  4. ^ See, Holliday v. St. Leonard, Shoreditch, 142 Eng Rep 769 (1861) (discussed in Callopy).
  5. ^ Georgetown College v. Hughes, 130 F.2d 810, 816-17 (1942) (discussing history of doctrine).
  6. ^ Jerold Oshinsky and Gheiza M. Dias (May 2002). "Liability of Not-for-profit organizations and Insurance Coverage for Related Liability". The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law 4 (2/3). 
  7. ^ a b Bradley C. Canon, Dean Jaros (Summer 1979). "The Impact of Changes in Judicial Doctrine: The Abrogation of Charitable Immunity". Law & Society Review 13 (4): 969–986.  
  8. ^ a b "Re Winding-up of the Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada".  184 D.L.R. (4th) 445, Ontario Court of Appeal, Court File No. C29290, Doherty, Abella and Feldman JJ.A., Heard: April 14, 1999, Judgment rendered: April 10, 2000
  9. ^ Murphy EK (October 2001). ""Captain of the ship" doctrine continues to take on water". Aorn J. 74 (4): 525–8.  
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