Protection of Charitable Immunity Act Extends Beyond Church Members (NJ)
The New Jersey Charitable Immunity Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a)) protects non-profit entities organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes from liability for personal injuries sustained by beneficiaries of the services provided by the non-profit entity. A common attack by plaintiffs on a defendant non-profit entity is directed to whether or not the entity is organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes, or whether it makes a profit such that it should be removed from the umbrella of protection afforded by the Act.
The plaintiff in Pollard v. Jerusalem Baptist Church took a different approach: instead of arguing that the Church was not operating exclusively as a religious organization, she argued that she was not a beneficiary of the Church’s services at the time of her accident, and therefore, the Act did not apply.
The plaintiff had dropped her mother off at the defendant Church for a religious meeting hosted by the Church of which her mother, not the plaintiff, was a member. The plaintiff returned a short time later, even though the meeting would not conclude for more than an hour, simply to be with her mother. The plaintiff was injured when she fell descending the basement stairs to the meeting room.
The trial court awarded summary judgment in favor of the Church based on the Charitable Immunity Act. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that she was not a member of the Church, did not ask for or receive any benefit from the Church, and did not visit the Church for any reason other than to spend time with her mother. The Church prevailed by highlighting the issue of what constitutes a beneficiary under the Act.
The Appellate Court determined that despite the plaintiff’s non-membership status with the Church and her personal lack of participation in the religious meeting being conducted and attended by her mother, the plaintiff derived a benefit from the Church – she was enjoying the benefit of being able to spend time with her mother while her mother attended the religious meeting organized by her Church.
Often, Charitable Immunity cases involve spectators at youth activity events. The Appellate Court made an interesting point in this regard: typically, parents escort their young children to events and often remain present to enjoy the experience. When those children grow up, the tables sometimes turn and they are the ones escorting their aging parents to various activities. Although the roles in Pollard were reversed from the typical factual scenario, the protections afforded by the Act were no less applicable.
Thanks to Emily Kidder for her contribution to this post. Please write to Mike Bono for more information.