Key point 10-16.5. The legal liability of churches and their officers, directors, and volunteers, is limited by state and federal "charitable immunity" laws.
* A New Jersey court ruled that a state charitable immunity law prevented a woman from suing a church as a result of injuries she suffered when she tripped on a sidewalk adjacent to the church. A church member ("Jackie") was driven to church by a friend to attend Sunday morning services. When they arrived at church, Jackie got out of the car carrying a Bible and began walking along a sidewalk next to the church. As she neared the front of the church, she tripped on a raised metal grate and fell, suffering a knee injury. She later sued the church for negligence. The church claimed that the lawsuit was barred by the New Jersey "Charitable Immunity Act" which provides that nonprofit corporations (including churches) are not liable for injuries suffered by any "beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation." Jackie insisted that when the accident occurred she was not a beneficiary of the church because she had not yet entered the church. The court disagreed, noting that a church member is "a beneficiary, to whatever degree" of the church’s religious mission "not only during the period when church services are actually being conducted, but also while the member is entering or leaving the church to obtain the benefit of those services." The court also rejected Jackie’s argument that the immunity law did not apply to accidents occurring on public sidewalks on church grounds. It observed that "a church’s entitlement to immunity from a personal injury action brought by one of its members does not turn on the nature of the church’s interest in the property where an accident occurs. Instead, it turns on the reason for the member’s presence on the property, which in this case was attendance at a church service. Thus, plaintiff was a beneficiary of the church’s religious works when she tripped and fell as she walked down the sidewalk toward the church to the same degree as if the accident had occurred on the walkway between the sidewalk and the entrance to the church."
Application. This case 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 to persons using public sidewalks on church grounds. Thomas v. Second Baptist Church, 766 A.2d 816 (N.J. Super. 2001).
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