• 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.
• A New Jersey court ruled that a state “charitable immunity” law prevented a church from being sued by a woman who slipped and fell on church property. A woman sustained injuries when she fell while exiting a church. She later sued the church, claiming that her injuries were caused by the church’s failure to “maintain the parking lot in a good state of repair.” A trial court dismissed the case on the basis of a New Jersey statute that prevents charitable organizations from being sued by “beneficiaries” of their services. The statute states:
No nonprofit corporation … organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes shall … be liable to respond in damages to any person who shall suffer damage 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 woman appealed, and a state appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It stressed that the “public policy which favors protection of charitable institutions is so strong” in New Jersey that the charitable immunity law must be liberally construed. The court noted that the charitable immunity law protects charities from being sued by their “beneficiaries,” and further observed that the term “beneficiary” is broadly construed to include only those persons who are “totally unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside the benefactions of the [charity].” Since the woman had attended services at the church immediately preceding her injury, there was no doubt that she was a “beneficiary” of the church and accordingly the church could not be sued by her on the basis of negligence.
The woman attempted to avoid this law by alleging that the church had been guilty of “gross” negligence. The court rejected this argument, noting that gross negligence is a form of negligence, and accordingly charities cannot be sued even if their conduct constitutes gross negligence. The court observed, “to construe an exception for gross negligence not expressly stated in the Act would disregard this explicit legislative mandate. So, too, to permit a plaintiff to circumvent or avoid the protection given by the Act merely by making unspecified allegations of gross negligence would render the protection of the Act so ineffective as to be virtually meaningless.” Monaghan v. Holy Trinity Church, 646 A.2d 1130 (N.J. Super. A.D. 1994).
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