What is Charitable Immunity?

I have had a number of recent cases where my clients were unable to obtain monetary damages for their personal injuries because of something called “charitable immunity.” Unfortunately for people that are seriously injured as result of someone else’s negligence, a New Jersey statute prevents the recovery of money for personal injury when the responsible party is a charitable entity and the injured party is a beneficiary of the charitable works of that entity.

Specifically, N.J.S.A. 2A: 53-7, which was enacted in 1959, states that a nonprofit corporation, society or association which is organized for religious, charitable or educational purposes and its employees shall not be responsible for damages suffered by someone who is a beneficiary of the charity’s works.  Importantly, however, the statute does not grant such immunity to a health care provider or their employees in the practice of their medical professions.  Of course, there are numerous cases which discuss what types of entities qualify as “charities” under the language of this statute and also clarify who is considered a “beneficiary” of the charity’s works.

In light of the statutory language, most churches and religious institutions will be considered charities. However, various legal and factual questions will arise with other types of “charitable” entities such as schools, athletic associations, educational associations and schools.  In this regard, in order to determine whether or not such entities qualify for charitable immunity under the statute, the focus will be on the original purpose of the entity, the not-for-profit status as well as whether or not state or federal aid is provided and the ultimate operation of the entity.  However, once an entity qualifies as a “charitable” entity pursuant to the terms of the statute, that does not necessarily mean they are completely immune from having to pay damages.

The next part of the analysis is whether or not the injured person in any way benefited from the charitable works of the organization. Of course, if you are receiving a direct benefit from the charity, you will clearly be considered a beneficiary of same.  However, there are other scenarios where the existence of the beneficiary status is more complex.  For instance, it has been held that where a pedestrian, just walking along the sidewalk next to a church, is not considered a “beneficiary” of the church’s good works if the pedestrian had no intention of entering the church or otherwise utilizing its facilities.  On the other hand, however, even if the injured person derives a small benefit from the charitable good works, they will be considered a beneficiary.  As an example, it has been held that a parent bringing their child to a parochial school was a beneficiary of the school’s good works despite the fact that the mother’s presence on the school property was solely for the purposes of picking up her child.  Similarly, it was held that a parent bringing her child to a local fundraiser was also a beneficiary of the fundraiser’s charitable purpose.

Based on the foregoing, it is not only important for the public to realize that such immunities exist under state law, but also to understand that the existence of such immunity does not necessarily foreclose their right to obtain money damages if they are injured. Importantly, the only way to determine whether or not such an immunity applies is to have a qualified attorney review the facts of each individual case and perform an investigation into both the basis of the charity’s nonprofit status and, further, to perform an analysis of whether or not the injured party is actually a beneficiary of the charity’s good works pursuant to the case law.

Should you have any questions concerning charitable immunity or to discuss the facts related to your particular case, please do not hesitate to contact my office for a free consultation.