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Anasiewicz v. Sacred Heart Church of New Brunswick

Decided: June 8, 1962.

ANNE ANASIEWICZ AND CHESTER ANASIEWICZ, HER HUSBAND, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
SACRED HEART CHURCH OF NEW BRUNSWICK, NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



Goldmann, Freund and Foley. The opinion of the court was delivered by Foley, J.A.D.

Foley

[74 NJSuper Page 533] This case was submitted to the Law Division on an agreed state of facts. Plaintiffs, professors of the Roman Catholic faith, but not members of the Sacred Heart parish, were invited guests at a wedding ceremony held at the church on Saturday afternoon, January 17,

1959. While leaving, Mrs. Anasiewicz slipped and fell because of ice and snow which had accumulated upon some of the entrance steps, and sustained injuries for which she, and her husband derivatively, brought suit.

Plaintiffs appeal from the trial court's holding that the action was barred by the immunity granted the defendant pursuant to N.J.S.A. 16:1-48 to 53 (L. 1958, c. 131). That statute, approved July 22, 1958, took effect on July 1, 1958 and expired by its own terms on June 30, 1959. The pertinent provisions of the legislation are the following:

"1. No nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes shall, except as is hereinafter set forth, be liable to respond in damages to any person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation, society or association, where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation, society or association; provided , however, that such immunity from liability shall not extend to any person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of such corporation, society, or association or of its agents or servants where such person is one unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions of such corporation, society or association; * * *.

3. For the purposes of this act * * * the buildings and places actually used for colleges, schools, academies, seminaries, historical societies, public libraries, religious worship , charitable or hospital purposes, the moral and mental improvement of men, women and children, nursing homes, rest homes, parish houses, auditoriums, houses of and for prayer and buildings and places, however named or designated, operated and maintained for equivalent uses, when so operated and maintained by any such nonprofit corporation, society or association, shall be deemed to be operated and maintained for a religious , charitable, educational or hospital purpose.

4. This act shall be deemed to be remedial and shall be liberally construed so as to afford immunity to the said corporations, societies and associations from liability as provided herein in furtherance of the public policy for the protection of nonprofit corporations, societies and associations organized for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes." (Italics supplied.)

Precisely put, the question is whether Mrs. Anasiewicz was "a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works" of the church, in which event the defendant is immune from

this action, or whether she was "unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside the benefactions" of the church, in which event the defendant would be responsible to plaintiffs on ordinary principles of negligence.

Construction of the statute necessarily requires a determination of the purposes it was designed to serve. On April 28, 1958 the Supreme Court in Dalton v. St. Luke's Catholic Church , 27 N.J. 22 (1958); Collopy v. Newark Eye and Ear Infirmary , 27 N.J. 29 (1958); and Benton v. Y.M.C.A. , 27 N.J. 67 (1958), repudiated the charitable immunity doctrine which had previously been the law of the State. And in Dalton the court rejected the defendant's contention that the overturning of the immunity should have prospective rather than retrospective application, 27 N.J. , at pp. 25-26.

The impact of these decisions upon the tort liability of charitable institutions such as the defendant, led to the enactment of L. 1958, c. 131, supra. The obvious objective of the statute was to revive, for a limited period, the immunity as it had been judicially defined, in order that charitable institutions might take steps to protect themselves from loss resulting from the expanded liability by obtaining liability insurance.

That the Legislature did not intend to expand, modify, or alter in any way the span of the pre-existing immunity seems apparent from the wording of the statute, as above italicized. Significantly, the verbiage employed closely parallels the language of the cases in which the immunity rule was enunciated. Compare, for example, Lindroth v. Christ Hospital , 21 ...


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