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Lindroth v. Christ Hospital

Decided: June 4, 1956.


On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, certified to this court on its own motion.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Wachenfeld, Jacobs and Brennan. For reversal -- Justice Oliphant. The opinion of the court was delivered by William J. Brennan, Jr., J.


The decisions of the New Jersey courts presently confer an immunity upon charitable organizations and enterprises from liability in negligence to injured persons who are beneficiaries of their benefactions, but do not confer such immunity when the injured persons are strangers thereto.

Plaintiff suffered injuries from a fall in an elevator of defendant, Christ Hospital, a private charitable hospital, when the elevator malfunctioned due to the hospital's negligence. The hospital moved at the end of the case for a judgment in its favor upon the ground that the proofs showed as a matter of law that plaintiff was a beneficiary of the hospital's charity. The motion was denied and the jury was instructed to find upon the proofs whether the plaintiff's relation to the hospital was that of beneficiary or of stranger. The jury returned a verdict of $50,000 in plaintiff's favor. The hospital moved to set the verdict aside as excessive, and the motion was denied. The hospital appealed to the Appellate Division, alleging error in both actions of the trial court, and we certified the appeal here on our own motion.

The protection of charitable organizations from liability in damages for otherwise just claims arising from their negligence is losing support throughout the country. In the recently published second edition of his handbook on the law of torts Dean Prosser comments that the law conferring this immunity "is undergoing rapid change," largely influenced by the 1942 decision of the late Mr. Justice Rutledge in President and Directors of Georgetown College v. Hughes, 76 U.S. App. D.C. 123, 130 F.2d 810 (App. D.C. 1942), written while the Justice was a judge of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. That "devastating opinion," says Dean Prosser, "reviewed all of the arguments in favor of the immunity and demolished them so completely as to change the course of the law," and was followed by "a flood of recent decisions holding that a charity is liable for its torts to the same extent as any other defendant."

The Dean lists 17 jurisdictions in addition to the District of Columbia where the immunity was formerly recognized and has now been repudiated. He concludes, "The immunity of charities is clearly in full retreat." Prosser, Law of Torts (2 d ed. 1955), pp. 787, 789.

The plaintiff meets the hospital's attack upon the trial judge's denial of the motion for judgment by suggesting that New Jersey should be added to the list of jurisdictions repudiating immunity.

But the plaintiff is not a beneficiary of the hospital's benefactions and the hospital's attempt to interpose the cloak of immunity to defeat his claim cannot succeed. We therefore prefer to await an action squarely presenting the issue before deciding the proposition urged by the plaintiff.

Such immunity as exists under our cases originated 31 years ago with the decision of our former Court of Errors and Appeals in D'Amato v. Orange Memorial Hospital, 101 N.J.L. 61 (E. & A. 1925). There recovery was denied a patient of a charitable hospital for injuries suffered when she fell from a chair due to the negligence of a nurse who was transferring her from the chair to a bed. Patients were also denied recoveries in the more recent decisions in Woods v. Overlook Hospital Ass'n, 6 N.J. Super. 47 (App. Div. 1949); and Rafferzeder v. Raleigh, etc., Memorial Hospital, 33 N.J. Super. 19 (App. Div. 1954), although both opinions stated that the results were reached because the intermediate appellate court believed it was not at liberty to depart from the law laid down in the D'Amato case however contrary that law was to the impressive weight of authority elsewhere.

The limited scope of the immunity recognized by our decisions is best evidenced by the cases decided after D'Amato. The immunity was held to protect a private charitable hospital from liability to a mother injured while visiting her daughter at a hospital, Boeckel v. Orange Memorial Hospital, 108 N.J.L. 453 (Sup. Ct. 1932), affirmed 110 N.J.L. 509 (E. & A. 1933); another charitable hospital from liability to a student nurse receiving nursing instructions there,

Casper v. Cooper Hospital, 26 N.J. Super. 535 (App. Div. 1953); a church from liability to a student injured by a fellow pupil while both were in attendance at a church parochial school, Jones v. St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, 7 N.J. 533 (1951), and a church from liability to a girl scout injured while attending a scout meeting in the church hall, Bianchi v. South Park Presbyterian Church, 123 N.J.L. 325 (E. & A. 1939). But the immunity was not a barrier protecting from tort liability a hospital sued by a member of a volunteer first aid squad injured at the hospital after bringing a patient into the hospital, Kolb v. Monmouth Memorial Hospital, 116 N.J.L. 118 (E. & A. 1936); hospitals sued by persons injured by the negligent operation of hospital vehicles on public highways, Daniels v. Rahway Hospital, 10 N.J. Misc. 585 (C.P. 1932), Matthews v. Monmouth Memorial Hospital, 131 N.J.L. 472 (E. & A. 1944); a church sued in like circumstances, Simmons v. Wiley M. E. Church, 112 N.J.L. 129 (E. & A. 1934); a hospital sued by a private nurse injured on hospital property while practicing her profession in the ...

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