Charitable Immunity Law

In some states, charities are immune from lawsuits by beneficiaries.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

Personal Injuries-on Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point. Some states protect charities from being sued by the beneficiaries of their services who are injured or damaged as a result of those services. The fact that a charity in such a state carries liability insurance will not necessarily affect its immunity from liability.

A New Jersey court dismissed a lawsuit brought against a church by a person injured on church premises on the basis of a state charitable immunity law that immunizes charities from liability for injuries sustained by “beneficiaries”. A Greek Orthodox congregation conducted an annual festival designed to introduce the community to the Greek Orthodox faith and the Hellenic culture. A resident of the community, who was not a member of the church, attended the festival and was seriously injured when he slipped on a sidewalk as he was leaving. He sued the church, claiming that the church’s negligence in maintaining and supervising its property caused his injuries. The church asked the court to dismiss the case on the basis of a New Jersey “charitable immunity” law specifying that “[n]o nonprofit corporation … organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes shall … be liable to respond in damages to any person who shall suffer damages from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation … where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation ….” The trial court dismissed the case on the ground that the patron was a “beneficiary” of the church and accordingly the church could not be liable for his injuries. The patron appealed, claiming that the festival was a commercial, fund-raising event that was not entitled to the protection of the charitable immunity law. An appeals court disagreed. In language that will be useful to other churches seeking to demonstrate the religious purpose of related activities, the court quoted from a 1939 decision:

Although a church’s main purpose may be to provide a place of worship and spiritual guidance, [its] function is not so narrowly confined. It is not limited to sectarian teaching and worship. In the modern view, exercises designed to aid in the advancement of the spiritual, moral, ethical and cultural life of the community in general are deemed within the purview of the religious society. A social center is now commonly regarded as a proper adjunct of the local church-conducive to the public good, as well as advantageous to the congregation. Bianchi v. South Park Presbyterian Church, 8 A.2d 567 (N.J. 1939).

The court concluded that the church’s annual festival furthered its religious purposes: “Without doubt, the church here was engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance, inasmuch as it was attempting to demonstrate to the community the rich traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church and the importance of the Hellenic culture in the orthodox religion as expressed through Greek food and dance.” The fact that the patron paid for a dinner at the festival did not change his status as a beneficiary of the church’s religious mission. Further, the fact that the patron may not have felt that he was a beneficiary of the church’s religious mission is not relevant, since the test is whether or not the church was engaged in the performance of its religious or charitable purposes at the time of the injury.

Application. This case certainly is significant to churches in New Jersey, or in those other jurisdictions that recognize a similar form of charitable immunity. The court’s broad definition of charitable immunity will be helpful to churches in such states in avoiding liability for unintended injuries. But churches in all states will benefit from the court’s broad definition of “religious purposes.” The court insisted that such purposes cannot be relegated to religious worship, but must also encompass many other forms of religious expression. Such a definition will be useful to churches that operate programs or ministries in addition to conventional worship services. To illustrate, if the “religious” nature of such a program or ministry is challenged by governmental agencies in the context of zoning, property taxes, or some other law or regulation, a church can refer to cases such as this in support of a broad definition of religion. Loder v. The Church, 685 A.2d 20 (N.J. Super. 1996).[Negligence as a Basis for Liability]

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