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Peacock v. Burlington County Historical Society

Decided: May 25, 1967.

HELEN N. PEACOCK AND WALTER H. PEACOCK, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
BURLINGTON COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, ET AL., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Conford, Foley and Leonard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Foley, J.A.D.

Foley

Plaintiff Helen N. Peacock brought a Law Division action to recover damages for personal injuries sustained on November 11, 1964 when a chair in defendant's premises, upon which she intended to sit, slipped from under her and she fell to the floor. Her husband sued per quod.

The case was tried before a jury which returned verdicts in favor of the respective plaintiffs in the amounts of $750 and $175. At the close of plaintiffs' case defendant moved for an involuntary dismissal upon the ground that as a nonprofit society, organized for charitable or educational purposes it was immune from plaintiffs' claims under N.J.S. 2A:53A-7 (L. 1959, c. 90). The court reserved decision. Subsequent to the trial the motion was denied. The sole question here involved is whether the facts of this case bring it within the claimed immunity.

On the day of the accident the Peacocks, by appointment, called at the premises where the Society maintained two buildings, one a library. The purpose of their call was to enable Mr. Peacock to obtain genealogical information. Mrs. Peacock had no interest whatever in that matter and went

with her husband merely to keep him company and to enjoy an automobile ride. Peacock conversed with the curator in charge and plaintiffs were then taken to the library building where Peacock, with the aid of the curator, examined "one or two books" in search of the desired information. Meanwhile, Mrs. Peacock, to pass the time while she waited for her husband, casually viewed exhibits and maps which were displayed for the benefit of any member of the public who chose to avail himself of the library facilities. Mrs. Peacock testified:

"Well, I started looking around at the exhibits. They were interesting articles, on display, and Mrs. Pugh and my husband were looking at books and records, I assume. I wasn't paying too much attention to them, because that wasn't of any interest to me. I mean, I was looking at visible things.

Well, I think it was about a half an hour later, after I had seen all there was to be seen, I came over to sit down beside my husband who was sitting at the end of the table. As I started to sit down, I started to lower my body into this chair, and the chair slipped out from under me, and I went down on my spine, on my buttocks." (Emphasis added)

Upon this state of facts the trial judge, relying on Mayer v. Fairlawn Jewish Center, 71 N.J. Super. 313 (App. Div. 1961), reversed on other grounds 38 N.J. 549 (1962), held that Mrs. Peacock was not a beneficiary of the works of the Society and consequently was not barred by N.J.S. 2A:53A-7, supra. We conclude that the court was in error.

The pertinent parts of N.J.S. 2A:53A-7 are as follows:

"No nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for * * * charitable, educational * * * 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 society * * * where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such * * * society * * * provided, however, that such immunity from liability shall not extend to any person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of such * * * society * * * where such person is one unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions of such * * * society * * *."


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