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KNECHT v. SAINT MARY'S HOSPITAL. (03/24/58)

March 24, 1958

KNECHT, APPELLANT,
v.
SAINT MARY'S HOSPITAL.



Appeal, No. 338, Jan. T., 1957, from judgment of Court of Common Pleas No. 5 of Philadelphia County, June T., 1955, No. 4619, in case of Harry L. Knecht et ux. v. Saint Mary's Hospital. Judgment affirmed.

COUNSEL

Lee B. Sacks, for appellants.

John J. Tinaglia, with him Michael A. Foley and Cornelius C. O'Brien, Jr., for appellee.

Before Jones, C.j., Bell, Chidsey, Musmanno, Arnold, Jones and Cohen, JJ.

Author: Jones

[ 392 Pa. Page 76]

OPINION BY MR. CHIEF JUSTICE JONES

The plaintiffs, husband and wife, sued the defendant hospital for damages for injuries allegedly suffered by the wife when she fell and fractured an ankle while a patient in the hospital. The details of the accident are not presently important. The hospital raised as its defense to the action its immunity, as an eleemosynary institution, from liability for tort. The trial court entered a monsuit which it subsequently refused to take off and the plaintiffs have appealed from the resultant judgment.

The appellants' sole argument is that this court should now repudiate the rule of immunity of charitable institutions from tort liability and remand the case to the court below for a trial on the merits as to the defendant's negligence and the plaintiffs' damages.

The immunity of an eleemosynary institution from tort liability has long been the established rule in Pennsylvania: Bond v. Pittsburgh, 368 Pa. 404, 84 A.2d 328; Siidekum, Admr. v. Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh, 353 Pa. 408, 45 A.2d 59; Gable v. Sisters of St. Francis, 227 Pa. 254, 75 A. 1087; Fire Insurance Patrol v. Boyd, 120 Pa. 624, 15 A. 553; Betts v. Young Men's Christian Association of Erie, 83 Pa. Superior Ct. 545. The rationale of the rule lay in the bounden duty of a public charity as a trustee to apply its funds in furtherance of its beneficent purpose. As declared by this court in 1888 in Fire Insurance Patrol v. Boyd, supra, - "A public charity, whether incorporated or not, is but a trustee, and is bound to apply its funds in furtherance of the charity and not otherwise. This doctrine is hoary with antiquity and prevails alike in this country and in England where it originated as early as the reign of Edward V, and it was announced in the Year Book of that period."

[ 392 Pa. Page 77]

However, the doctrine has since been abandoned in England and in a number of American jurisdictions. The confused status of the decisions among the various jurisdictions was well epitomized by Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE, then of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in President and Directors of Georgetown College v. Hughes, 130 F.2d 810, 812, as follows: "Paradoxes of principle, fictional assumptions of fact and consequence, and confused results characterize judicial disposition of these claims. From full immunity, through varied but inconsistent qualifications to general responsibility is the gamut of decision. The cases are almost riotous with dissent. Reasons are even more varied than results." Nonetheless, the law on this subject in Pennsylvania is clear. Charitable institutions are not subject to liability for tort. It is that rule which the appellants would have us now abandon by court decision.

The rule was most recently reviewed in the case of Bond v. Pittsburgh, supra, in which the opinions for both the majority and the minority were agreed that the rule should remain as heretofore short of legislative change. Mr. Chief Justice STERN, speaking for the majority, said that, "notwithstanding the violent criticisms that have been directed by academic legal writers against the doctrine of the immunity of charitable organizations from tort liability, and notwithstanding also the fact that there is considerable conflict in the judicial decisions on the subject among the several States, our own Commonwealth has, from the earliest times, stood firm in its adherence to the principle of immunity." The majority opinion further pertinently stated that "If and when there is to be any change in the doctrine of the immunity of charitable institutions from tort liability, it ought to be effected, not by the courts, but by the legislature, which is, of

[ 392 Pa. Page 78]

    course, the ultimate tribunal to determine public policy." The dissenter in the Bond case likewise recognized that "The doctrine of immunity of charities has in recent years been recurrently criticized as out-moded, unrealistic, illogical, inconsistent and not in public interest, but nevertheless ... [agreed] with the majority that the principle is now too firmly imbedded in our law to be removed except by legislation ...."

A rule of non-liability, even though judge-made, that has become as firmly fixed in the law of this State as has the charitable immunity from tort liability, should not be abrogated otherwise than by a statute made to operate prospectively. If the rule were to be abandoned by court decision, it would lay open to liability all charities for their torts of the past that were not barred by the statute of limitations at the time of the rendition of the rescinding decision. The injustice of such an imposition of liability upon charities that theretofore had a right to rely on the rule of immunity is readily apparent. Whereas, if and when the rule is abrogated prospectively, which the legislature could provide, all charities then made subject to tort liability for the future could protect themselves by appropriate insurance. Moreover, whether, in this day of traffic hazards from automotive vehicles of charities as well as of all others, the rule as to charitable immunity should be rescinded poses a question of public policy which falls peculiarly within the competence of the legislature.

Disposition

Judgment affirmed.

ING OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE MUSMANNO:

The sole question in this case is whether a patient, injured in a charitable hospital, may bring an action in tort against the hospital because of asserted negligence

[ 392 Pa. Page 79]

    on the part of its agents, servants, or employees. The lower Court decided that recovery is barred under the decision of this Court in the case of Bond v. Pittsburgh, 368 Pa. 404, decided in 1951. In that case Justice STERN (later Chief Justice) said: "Notwithstanding the violent criticisms that have been directed by academic legal writers against the doctrine of the immunity of charitable organizations from tort liability, and notwithstanding also the fact that there is considerable conflict in the judicial decisions on the subject among the several States, our own Commonwealth has, from the earliest times, stood firm in its adherence to the principle of immunity."

The fact that our Commonwealth has "stood firm in tis adherence to the principle of immunity" does not of itself prove that it has stood firm in law and justice. From time to time we have seen that a doctrine for which the Commonwealth stood firmly, was later proved to have a defective foundation and it finally collapsed in spite of the firm support of this Court. Thus for many decades it was the law in Pennsylvania that no recovery was possible where the plaintiff, in a railroad accident, could not specifically prove the defect in the railroad equipment which had brought about the damage of which he complained. In 1913 in the case of Bradley v. Lake Shore and Michigan, 238 Pa. 315, the plaintiff was struck by an iron brake bar which flew from a railroad train as he, an intending passenger, was waiting for a train. He brought an action in trespass against the railroad company but was nonsuited. This Court upheld the non-suit with the rather unique explanation that the plaintiff was a victim of an "accident pure and simple." What is any negligence case but the result of an accident pure and simple? Forty years later, in the case of Mack v. Reading, 377 Pa. 135, this Court acknowledged that

[ 392 Pa. Page 80]

    no trespass case can be disposed of with the meager and naked statement that the plaintiff was injured in an "accident pure and simple." On March 22, 1954, by a unanimous decision, we repudiated the doctrine and the supposed stare decisis of the Bradley case. But in the meantime who knows how many deserving claimants were deprived of a just recompense because of the stare decisis of Bradley?

Chief Justice BROWN of this Court asserted in 1919, in the case of Luzerne County v. Morgan, 263 Pa. 458, that there was a duty on the part of this Court to depart from a presently-discovered improper ruling of the past: "If we should now be considerately of opinion that our predecessors erred in holding, time and again, that the legislature is not prohibited by the Constitution from designating a county officer as its agent for the collection of revenue due directly to it, and providing for compensation to be retained by him for his services as such agent, our duty would be to so declare and to depart from their rulings."*fn1

In 1926 this Court in the case of Com. v. Sunbury Converting Works, 286 Pa. 545, 554, overruled a previous decision because it was out of harmony with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States: "This somewhat elaborate review of the controlling principles and authorities, has led us, after most mature consideration, to the conclusion that Com. v. Westinghouse Air Brake Co., supra, must be overruled. It is out of harmony with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, with those of our sister states and stands alone with us. It contravenes the public policy of the State ..."

Of course, I do not believe that the doctrine of stare decisis should be lightly regarded. Without it

[ 392 Pa. Page 81]

    there would be no stability in the law. The ship of jurisprudence should follow that well-defined channel which, over the years, has been proved to be safe and trustworthy.But it does not comport with wisdom to say that when shoals rise in a heretofore safe course, and rocks emerge to encumber the passage, the ship should pursue the original course merely because it had presented no hazard in the past. The doctrine of stare decisis does not demand that we follow precedents which experience has now proved to be in violation of accepted principles of justice.

It was suggested in the case of Bond v. Pittsburgh, supra, that the doctrine of immunity of charitable organizations is an ancient one. It is not in fact ancient. This doctrine first entered the law of England in the case of Holliday v. St. Leonard's, 11 C.B.N.S. 192, 142 Eng.Rep. 769, which was itself based on the case of Duncan v. Findlater, 6 Cl. & Fin. 894, 7 Eng.Rep. 934, decided in 1839. Although both these English cases were later overruled, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts adopted the repudiated doctrine in 1876 in the case of McDonald v. Massachusetts Gen. Hosp., 120 Mass. 432, this being the first time the rule was recognized in American jurisprudence.

In the Bond case, this Court apparently considered the case of Fire Insurance Patrol v. Julia F. Boyd, 120 Pa. 624, which was decided in 1888, as the first announcement of the charitable institution immunity doctrine in Pennsylvania.*fn2 But is 1888 so ...


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