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Kean University Found To Be Immune From Liability Under The Charitable Immunity Act For Plaintiff’s Fall At Soccer Game At Kean University Stadium

By on April 8, 2022 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Kathleen Fisher attended a high school soccer championship game which was held at the Kean University stadium.  The game was sponsored by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA).  While leaving the stadium after the game finished, plaintiff tripped and fell on a raised sidewalk and suffered an injury.  Plaintiff sued Kean University for her injuries.   The issue in Fisher v. Kean University, 2022 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 493 (App. Div. March 29, 2022), was whether Kean University (Kean) was immune from liability for the plaintiff’s injuries based upon the Charitable Immunity Act (“CIA”).

Due to plaintiff’s trip and fall, she injured her cervical spine. As a result of the injury, she underwent cervical spinal fusion surgery.

Plaintiff sued Kean claiming that it “negligently constructed or maintained the premises, or negligently failed to give proper warning of the dangerous condition of its property.”  After discovery closed, Kean filed for summary judgment arguing that it was immune from liability under the Charitable Immunity Act (CIA), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to 11.  Kean also argued that the plaintiff’s injury failed to meet the threshold requirements of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act.

The trial court judge applied the three-prong test used to determine immunity under the CIA.  She correctly stated the test as follows:

An entity qualifies for charitable immunity when it (1) was formed for nonprofit 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 trial court judge focused on the portion of the test as to whether Kean was promoting its educational purposes by permitting the NJSIAA to conduct its championship game at the University’s stadium.  The trial court noted that the court “should focus on the stated purposes of the charitable defendant and give due recognition to the broad discretion of latitude the law grants charitable institutions for the methods of achieving their charitable objective.”

The trial court judge found that Kean’s mission statement expressly included collaborating with educational and community organizations.  She noted that was exactly what Kean did in bringing together the high school soccer teams from multiple high schools to compete in the event.  She found that plaintiff did not offer any facts which could conclude that Kean failed to meet the CIA test and entered an Order dismissing the complaint.

The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appellate Division and reiterated her arguments made below at the trial court level.  She argued that there was an issue of fact as to whether Kean was furthering its educational objectives by sponsoring a high school soccer tournament and, thus, summary judgment should not have been granted.

The Appellate Division rejected the plaintiff’s argument and affirmed the trial court decision.  The Court noted that there was a certification submitted from Kean’s acting Director of Athletics, Matthew Caruso.  Mr. Caruso certified that at the time of plaintiff’s accident, Kean was (1) a non-profit organization; (2) organized exclusively for charitable and educational purposes; and (3) promoting its charitable and educational objectives by hosting the NJSIAA Girls Soccer Championships.

The Appellate Division noted that Kean’s mission statement was referenced by the trial court judge which stated that the University dedicated itself “to the intellectual, cultural, and personal growth of all its members – students, faculty, and professional staff.”  Further, it noted that Kean “collaborates with business, labor, government and the arts, as well as educational and community organizations and provides the region with cultural events and opportunities for continuous learning.”

The Court pointed out that, in prior case law, the term “educational” had been broadly interpreted and not limited to purely scholastic activities.  Further, prior case law found that a “nonprofit corporation may be organized for exclusively educational purposes even though it provides an educational experience which is recreational in nature.” 

Here, Kean’s mission statement specified its intention to prepare its students to “serve as active and contributing members of their communities” by attending “an interactive university” that “collaborated with business, labor, government and the arts, as well as educational and community organizations.”  Thus, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge that “no reasonable factfinder could conclude Kean was not promoting its stated educational objectives by hosting a high school soccer championship sponsored by the NJSIAA at its stadium.”  Thus, the Court affirmed the trial court decision which found that Kean University was immune from liability for the plaintiff’s injuries.

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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 30 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.

For the years 2020-2023, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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