Arkansas Supreme Court
LITTLE ROCK -- Registered charities still cannot have lawsuits brought against them under the doctrine of charitable immunity, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled yesterday. But injured plaintiffs can bring action against individual employees who will then be covered by liability funds and similar protection, the Supreme Court added. In Sowders vs. St. Joseph's Mercy Health Center and Sisters of Mercy Health System (No. 06-414) a patient sued the defendants for injuries she suffered while being transferred from a wheelchair to a car at the hospital. A circuit court ruled that the plaintiff couldn't claim from the Sisters of Mercy's liability pool because it was not insurance against legal action. Nor could she sue St. Joseph's, as it was protected by charitable immunity. The plaintiff appealed, claiming she was denied a remedy for her injuries in violation of article 2, § 13 of the Arkansas Constitution. The Supreme Court, which received the case directly from the Court of Appeals, disagreed. "Because Sowders was free to bring suit against the employees, we cannot say that she has been denied a remedy," Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in a majority verdict. The plaintiff also urged the justices to "abandon precedent and abolish the doctrine of charitable immunity because it is against public policy," Hannah wrote. Not surprisingly, the court refused to do so but also urged the Arkansas legislature to consider the idea. The lone dissenter, Justice Robert L. Brown, wrote that the plaintiff is now left without a legal remedy and that "this appears unfair and unjust to me." He argued that the direct-action statute "be liberally construed in charitable immunity cases to include liability pools, such as the Sisters of Mercy's fund."