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University Entitled to Charitable Immunity for Injury at Concert

By on July 12, 2019 in Litigation with 0 Comments

Plaintiff, Frances Green (“Green”), sued Monmouth University for injuries she allegedly suffered while attending a Martina McBride concert that was held at the University but was open to the public.  In the published Supreme Court decision of Green v. Monmouth University, 237 N.J. 516 (2019), the issue was whether the defendant University was immune from suit pursuant to the Charitable Immunity Act.  The Court found that the question hinged on whether, in hosting the concert, the University was engaged in performing the educational objectives it was organized to promote and whether Green was a direct recipient of those works when she attended the concert. 

Green was injured while she was climbing stairs at the concert in an area that she alleges was poorly lit.  She stepped on to what appeared to be a solid surface but her foot slipped down to the step below, causing her to fall forward. Her face struck the back of a seat in one of the rows adjacent to the stairs.  A rubber strip sticking up from the step was observed by a University Police Officer in the area where Green fell.

Green filed suit against the University.  Both the plaintiff and the defendant moved for summary judgment and it was granted in favor of the University.  According to the trial court, the University’s resolutions stated that the University’s purposes included holding concerts for the general public “to advance the cause of education in wholesome recreation.”  Accordingly, the trial court determined that the McBride concert fell “squarely within those purposes.”  Further, although Green was not a University student, the court found that she was a beneficiary of its educational purpose when she attended the concert.  Thus, the trial court found that the University was entitled to charitable immunity and dismissed plaintiff’s lawsuit.

The Charitable Immunity Act affords immunity to “non-profit entities organized for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes.”  N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10.  An entity qualifies for charitable 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 the plaintiff who was then a beneficiary of the charitable works. 

Here, the trial court found that there was no dispute that the University satisfied the first two prongs of that standard.  The third prong of the charitable immunity test involved two inquiries:

  1. Whether the organization pleading the immunity, at the time in question, was engaged in the performance of the objectives is organized to advance; and
  2. Whether the injured party was a direct recipient of those good works.

The Appellate Division had affirmed the trial court’s determination but, there was a dissent, which led to an automatic right of appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.  The dissenting judge felt that immunity was inappropriate because the University derived income from the concert and felt that there was a disputed question of whether McBride’s concert was an “artistic performance” that served the University’s educational goals.

The Supreme Court reviewed a number of decisions which showed the liberal construction the Legislature had prescribed for the Charitable Immunity Act.  It noted that the courts have found institutions offering “an array of services” to be educational in nature and “have found a broad variety of activities offered by educational institutions to advance their educational objectives.” 

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court decision, finding that the University’s stated goals of presenting concerts open to the public to advance the cause of education should not be questioned by the Court to decide what music constitutes “educational” music and what does not.  Further, Monmouth University’s decision to charge a fee to the organization that hosted the concert did not result in the loss of the University’s charitable immunity.  The Court’s decision was not at all based upon whether the University made a profit or not on the concert.  It noted that the Legislature could have set up the Charitable Immunity Act to turn on such issues but did not.  Finally, the Court agreed that the plaintiff was a beneficiary under the language of the Charitable Immunity Act.

As a result, the Court found that Monmouth University was entitled to assert the Charitable Immunity Act as a defense.  Hence, the plaintiff was barred from suing the University and the dismissal of the lawsuit was affirmed.

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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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