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Heffelfinger v. Town of Morristown

May 24, 1985

PATRICIA D. HEFFELFINGER AND EUGENE M. HEFFELFINGER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
TOWN OF MORRISTOWN, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; SOUTHEAST MORRIS COUNTY MUNICIPAL UTILITIES AUTHORITY, A BODY CORPORATE OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, EDWARD L. VOGT, ALFRED J. MACKIN, RALPH B. WELSH, DUDLEY F. PARKER, WILLIS H. DUTTON, JR., A. NESBITT PHILLIPS, HENRY M. HOYT, WILLIAM D. BRUEN, DONALD A. DELPHO, ROBERT S. ROCHELLE, GLENN K. COUTTS AND JAMES C. PITNEY, BEING THE SURVIVING TRUSTEES OF MORRISTOWN GREEN; RAYMOND B. DECHIARA, SEYMOUR EPSTEIN, JOHN STEVENS, PASQUALE (PAT) DECHIARA, THEODORE (TED) DENMAN, J. ALBERT WUNDER, WILLIAM PIERSON, ANN MACKINNIS, B. SANDELLI (FIRST NAME UNKNOWN, INDIVIDUALLY AND T/A B. SANDELLI CONTRACTING), BEING THE 1981 CHRISTMAS ON THE GREEN COMMITTEE; CHAMBER OF COMMERCE OF MORRIS COUNTY; AND JOHN DOE, RUTH ROE, ABC CORPORATION AND XYZ COMMITTEE (FICTITIOUS NAMES REPRESENTING ONE OR MORE PERSONS OR LEGAL ENTITIES HAVING AN OWNERSHIP INTEREST IN THE MORRISTOWN GREEN AND/OR BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MAINTENANCE AND/OR DECORATION THEREOF), DEFENDANTS



MacKenzie, J.s.c.

Mackenzie

[209 NJSuper Page 382] This is a negligence action arising out of an incident which occurred on November 25, 1981. Plaintiff Patricia Heffelfinger (hereafter "Mrs. Heffelfinger") allegedly fell and sustained bodily injury on the Morristown Green*fn1 while visiting the 1981

"Christmas on the Green" display with her daughter. Her husband sues per quod. Among those from whom they seek money damages are: Edward L. Vogt, Alfred J. Mackin, Ralph B. Welsh, Dudley F. Parker, Willis H. Dutton, Jr., A. Nesbitt Phillips, Henry M. Hoyt, William D. Bruen, Donald A. Delpho, Robert S. Rochelle, Glenn K. Coutts, and James C. Pitney. These individual defendants collectively constitute the successor trustees of the Morristown Green (hereafter "trustees"). The trustees now move for summary judgment on the authority of the charitable immunity statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7, et seq. ("act"). All parties agree that there are no issues of material fact. Hence, the matter is ripe for determination as a matter of law. R. 4:46-1; Judson v. People's Bank & Trust of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67 (1954).

The trustees assert that Mrs. Heffelfinger's claims against them are barred by N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7, which provides that:

[n]o 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 persons who shall suffer damage from the negligence from any agent or servant of the corporation, society or association, where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the work 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 persons are unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions of such corporation, society or association; but nothing herein shall be deemed to exempt the said agent or servant individually from their liability for any such negligence. [Emphasis supplied]

Before the court may conclude that the trustees are entitled to the protection of the act, they must demonstrate that they were a "nonprofit corporation, society or association, organized exclusively for . . . charitable . . . purposes," which promoted such purposes at the time of the incident. In addition, the

trustees must establish that Mrs. Heffelfinger was a beneficiary of their charitable works.

I. "Nonprofit Corporation, Society, or Association."

Mrs. Heffelfinger first contends that the trustees are not a "nonprofit corporation, society or association," and thus are not entitled to the benefit of the act. The trustees argue that their group is tantamount in a legal sense, to such a "society or association."*fn2 This court agrees that the principles which confer legal immunity upon those entities specifically defined by the Legislature apply equally to these trustees.

The terms "society" and "association" are not clearly defined by New Jersey statutory or decisional law. However, a "society" is generally recognized as "[a]n association or company of persons (generally unincorporated) united together by mutual consent, in order to deliberate, determine and act jointly for some common purpose." Black's Law Dictionary (5 ed. 1979) at 1245. N.J.S.A. 2A:64-1, which allows associations to sue or be sued, uses language similar to the general definition of a society and provides that:

[a]ny unincorporated organization or association, consisting of 7 or more persons and having a recognized name . . . may sue and be sued in any court of this state by such name in any civil action affecting its common property, rights and liabilities, with the same force and effect as regards such common property,

rights and liabilities as if the action were prosecuted by or against ...


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