Exculpatory Agreements and Charitable Organizations

Plaintiff, Andre Johnson, voluntarily enrolled as a beneficiary in defendant, Salvation Army’s, adult rehabilitation program. The treatment program included assigned job responsibilities. During the program, Johnson was injured in a car crash while a passenger in a Salvation Army owned vehicle being driven by a Salvation Army employee. Johnson filed a negligence claim. The Salvation Army filed an affirmative defense alleging that Johnson’s claims were barred because he signed an exculpatory agreement. Ultimately, the circuit court decided that the exculpatory clause in the beneficiary’s admittance statement was a complete bar to Johnson’s claims.  

The appellate court agreed. Johnson v. Salvation Army, 2011 IL App (1st) 103323.  Johnson argued that the exculpatory clause was against public policy in that his relationship with the defendant was akin to an employee/employer.  While exculpatory agreements are generally contrary to public policy if between an employer and employee, the court disagreed with Johnson and concluded that the relationship was that of a beneficiary and charitable organization. The work therapy and training during rehabilitation was part of the rehabilitation process and gave the beneficiaries a sense of self worth. The beneficiaries were not paid for their work. The admittance statement Johnson signed even stated that “I am a beneficiary and not an employee of this center.” 

Johnson also argued that the disparity in bargaining power between him and defendant rendered the exculpatory clause unenforceable.  He argued that he had no free choice or reasonable alternative in bargaining with the defendant over the enrollment conditions and that he had no free choice but to accept the terms or be denied food and shelter. However, the court held that the food and shelter offered by the defendant were merely incident to the rehab program and that the defendant could have sought rehabilitation services elsewhere

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