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Personal Injury Claim Against Church Barred by Charitable Immunity Act

By on January 7, 2022 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Michele Bass fell and suffered an injury while walking down an exterior staircase while attending a meeting at the defendant House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ of Orange. She claimed that she fell due to a negligent condition of the Church’s stairs, including dangerous cracks. The issue in Bass v. House of Prayer Cogic of Orange, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3173 (App. Div. Dec. 29, 2021), was whether Plaintiff was able to establish that the Church had engaged in grossly negligent conduct so as to preclude immunity under the Charitable Immunity Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11.

Plaintiff, while not a member of the Church, was lawfully on the premises to attend a meeting with women from various churches in the area. Plaintiff had attended previous meetings at the Church and had always entered and exited through the front door. However, on the day of Plaintiff’s fall, she parked her car behind the Church and used the rear door.

While Plaintiff’s claim was that she fell due to “dangerous cracks” in the stair’s landing, during her deposition, she admitted that she never saw any cracks. But, she claimed that she knew the crack existed because she felt it and stumbled afterwards. She was unable, however, to identify the portion of the top staircase that may have caused her to stumble.

Plaintiff’s friend witnessed the accident and testified that the steps were “all cracked up.” She also was not able to identify the cause of Plaintiff’s fall and did not see Plaintiff step on a crack.

Two Church trustees were deposed and neither was aware of any cracks or damage to the stairs on the day of Plaintiff’s fall. They denied knowledge of any alleged dangerous condition regarding the stairs and were unaware of any prior complaints as to the stairs. Further, one of the trustees assisted Plaintiff following the fall and Plaintiff told the Trustee that her hand slipped off the railing.

At the trial court level, the Church filed for a summary judgment on the basis of the Charitable Immunity Act. While not contesting that the Act did not apply, Plaintiff contended that there was an issue of gross negligence that should be submitted to a jury and, hence, would preclude an order for summary judgment. However, the trial court judge disagreed, finding no evidence of gross negligence and granted summary judgment to the Church.

This appeal ensued with Plaintiff arguing that there were issues of fact and summary judgment should not have been granted.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court ruling. The Court noted that the Act does not accord blanket immunity to a charitable organization. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c), a person who is injured “by a willful, wanton or grossly negligent act of commission or omission” is not precluded from filing a lawsuit under the Act. The Appellate Division stated that while “gross negligence” is not defined in the Act, “it is commonly associated with egregious conduct … and is used to describe ‘the upper reaches of negligent conduct.’”

Here, the parties agreed that the Church was a charitable entity and Plaintiff was “a beneficiary of the Church’s work” so as to qualify for immunity under the Act. Thus, the focus was on whether the Church acted with gross negligence so as to bar the application of the Act.

The Appellate Division held that Plaintiff had presented no evidence that the Church’s actions constituted gross negligence. She could not articulate “the precise cause of her fall” and had said that “her hand slipped from the handrail.” Later, she claimed that she fell due to a crack in the staircase but was not able to identify the crack that caused her to fall. She also was not able to prove that there were prior complaints about the staircase or that the Church had notice of a “defective condition” associated with the staircase.

The Court pointed out that “[a] motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by bare conclusions lacking factual support.” Evidence was required to create a question of fact. A plaintiff must “do more than raise mere speculation and conjecture in opposing summary judgment.” The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge that summary judgment was properly granted because Plaintiff had failed “to proffer evidence of gross negligence, aside from her own unsupported conclusions.”  Therefore, the Church remained immune from suit under the Charitable Immunity Act.

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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 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.

For the years 2020 and 2021, 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.

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