New Jersey’s Appellate Division reaffirmed the protections afforded by the Charitable Immunity Act where plaintiff could not prove gross negligence

On December 29, 2021, the New Jersey Appellate Division in Bass v. House of Prayer Cogic of Orange, Docket A-1284-20, __ N.J. Super. __ ( App. Div. December 29, 2021), issued an opinion reinforcing the protections afforded to organizations that qualify for immunity under New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act (“CIA”) , N.J.S.A. 2A:53-7 to -11.

The plaintiff in Bass tripped and fell while descending an exterior staircase of the defendant House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ of Orange, New Jersey (the “Church”). The plaintiff, while not a member of the Church, was lawfully on the premises to attend a meeting with other women from various churches in the area. The plaintiff claimed she fell due to a negligent condition of the stairs, including dangerous cracks in the stair's landing. However during her deposition, plaintiff could not point to the crack that caused her fall. The plaintiff’s friend witnessed the incident, but could not identify the cause of plaintiff’s fall either. Conversely, trustees of the Church testified that there was nothing wrong with the stairs and there were neither prior reports of injury nor prior complaints regarding the condition of the stairs. One of the trustees further testified that immediately after plaintiff’s fall, plaintiff said her hand slipped off the railing and caused her to fall.

At the end of discovery, the Church moved for summary judgment based on the immunity granted to qualifying organizations under CIA. The plaintiff opposed the motion contending that the CIA was inapplicable to the Church in this instance because the Church was grossly negligent, which presented a jury question. The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of the Church, finding that plaintiff failed to present any evidence of gross negligence and that the plaintiff failed to overcome the immunity accorded to the Church under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c). The plaintiff appealed arguing that there were genuine issues of material fact precluding summary judgment and that summary judgement should not have been granted because the Church was grossly negligent.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling granting the Church summary judgment.

The Appellate Division acknowledged that the CIA does not accord blanket immunity to a charitable organization and that under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c), a person injured "by a willful, wanton or grossly negligent act of commission or omission" is not precluded from filing suit.  It found that the parties did not dispute that the Church was a charitable entity and that the plaintiff was a beneficiary of the Church's work. Therefore, the Appellate Division’s analysis properly focused on whether the Church acted with gross negligence which, if proven, would preclude it from the immunity offered by the CIA. Critically, the Appellate Division determined that plaintiff had provided no evidence that the Church's actions constituted gross negligence, noting by way of illustration that plaintiff could not articulate the precise cause of her fall and initially indicated her hand slipped from the handrail. Further, plaintiff did not provide any evidence of complaints or injuries related to the Church's staircase prior to her fall and failed to proffer any support for her claim that the Church had notice of a defective condition associated with the staircase. The Appellate Division held that plaintiff failed to present any evidence the Church's conduct constituted gross negligence to overcome the immunity afforded under the CIA and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the Church.

Takeaways:

  • Immunity under CIA is applicable when an organization is (1) formed for a non-profit purpose; (2) organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes; and (3) promoting these objectives at the time of the injury to the plaintiff and plaintiff was a beneficiary of the charitable efforts performed by the organization.
  • Immunity under CIA can be overcome if the plaintiff is injured by a willful, wonton or grossly negligent act of commission or omission.
  • Gross negligence, though not defined in the CIA, is commonly associated with “egregious conduct. . . and is used to describe ‘the upper reaches of negligent conduct.’”
  • To overcome a motion for summary judgment in a case where a plaintiff alleges that the qualifying organization was grossly negligent, plaintiff must submit specific evidence in support of the claim and may not “circumvent or avoid the protection given by the Act merely by making unspecified allegations of gross negligence.”