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Church Found Immune Under Charitable Immunity Act For Injury Due to Plaintiff’s Fall on Snow When Attending Drunk Driving Program at Church

By on November 22, 2019 in Liability with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Edward Castellano was ordered to participate in a 48 hour Intoxicated Driver’s Resource Center (IDRC) Program due to his second drunk driving conviction.  The program was located on property owned and operated by defendant St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Keyport, New Jersey.  As plaintiff walked about the premises before the program started, he slipped and fell due to snow located on the church property.  In Castellano v. Garrett Enterprises, LLC, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2090 (App. Div. October 10, 2019), the issue on appeal was whether the defendant church was immune from the plaintiff’s lawsuit based upon charitable immunity grounds. 

It was undisputed in this case that the defendant St. Joseph’s Church owned, operated, and maintained the property in question.  Defendant Garrett Enterprises (“Garrett”) ran the IDRC Program that plaintiff was attending.  Garrett and St. Joseph’s Church had an agreement that allowed Garrett to use the church property for its 48 hour IDRC Program in exchange for its payment to St. Joseph’s Church of $100 per client.

In the days leading up to the plaintiff’s attendance at the IDRC Program, it had snowed, including the night before.  As the plaintiff walked about the premises before the program started, he slipped and fell, and claimed that he suffered injuries for which he sought compensation in this lawsuit.

At the trial court level, St. Joseph’s Church successfully obtained a summary judgment dismissal, arguing that it was entitled to immunity based upon the Charitable Immunity Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7).  Plaintiff argued upon an appeal that the trial court judge should not have granted summary judgment, because, in his view, St. Joseph’s Church “was not engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives that it was organized to advance” and, further, he was “unconcerned and unrelated to the benefactions of” St. Joseph’s Church.  The Appellate Division, however, rejected these arguments and affirmed the summary judgment ruling in favor of St. Joseph’s Church.

The Appellate Division noted that under the Charitable Immunity Act, the New Jersey Supreme Court “has recognized that an entity qualifies for immunity when it (1) was formed for non-profit purposes; (2) is organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes and (3) was promoting such objectives and purposes at the time of the injury to plaintiff who was then a beneficiary of the charitable works.”

The Court noted that St. Joseph’s Church clearly met the first two prongs in that it was organized as a non-profit entity exclusively for religious purposes.  The plaintiff focused on the third element and contended that the Church was not engaged in the performance of its charitable objectives at the time of the incident and that the plaintiff was not a beneficiary of those good works.

The Appellate Division noted that, long ago, in case law, the Court recognized that the church function is not limited to sectarian teaching and worship.  Under the “modern view”, churches are also “designed to aid in the advancement of the spiritual, moral, ethical and cultural life of the community in general” and such are deemed within the purview of the religious society.  There is a broad interpretation of “charitable objectives and good works.” 

Hence, based upon the facts, the church made its property available for IDRC purposes and thus, St. Joseph’s Church was acting within its charitable objectives.  The IDRC program’s essential purpose was not to incarcerate but to provide alcohol and drug education and highway safety.  Participants were free to leave at any time and the program coordinator might also evaluate a participant for further treatment.              

The Appellate Division noted that these goals fit well within the church’s broad mission.  Finally, the Court stated that “by providing a place for highway safety education as well as alcohol and drug education and evaluation – for the rehabilitation of DWI offenders – St. Joseph’s Church acted well within the scope of its mission and for plaintiff’s benefit.”  Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling, granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant St. Joseph’s Church based upon the Charitable Immunity Act, dismissing the lawsuit as to this defendant.

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Betsy G. Ramos

About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

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