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Harrington v. Clara Maass Hospital and Cerebral Palsy Center

Decided: February 28, 1986.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.

Furman, Petrella and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Furman, P.J.A.D.


[208 NJSuper Page 367] Plaintiff and defendant Clara Maass Hospital appeal from summary judgment invoking the bar of charitable immunity, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7, in favor of defendant Cerebral Palsy Center. Certification as a final judgment was entered pursuant to R. 4:42-2. We reverse and remand. On the record, in our

view, a fact issue of beneficiary status under the statute is not precluded.

Summary judgment was denied to defendant Clara Maass Hospital on the ground of an unresolved fact issue whether plaintiff fell on premises owned or controlled by it. Its premises adjoin those of Cerebral Palsy Center. There is no cross-appeal.

The facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff are as follows. It is not contested that Cerebral Palsy Center is a charitable corporation. On the day of her accident plaintiff accompanied Chris Shaw to the center at his invitation. In her deposition over two years later she referred to him as her "ex-boyfriend." Shaw regularly transported his sister Karen, who suffered from cerebral palsy, to and from the center for out-patient treatment in a van specially equipped with a ramp for her wheel chair. The sparse record does not reveal whether plaintiff had accompanied Chris on that errand on any previous occasion or whether she was a friend of Karen's and, if so, to what extent.

Plaintiff fell in the parking lot outside the Cerebral Palsy Center after Chris Shaw had parked the van, left it and gone inside the center. Plaintiff stepped out of the van with the intention of pulling the ramp down from the back of the van. Allegedly, she slipped on snow and ice and suffered an elbow injury.

N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 bars a beneficiary "to whatever degree" of a charitable institution from recovering damages against it for its negligence. According to a proviso of the statute, charitable immunity does not extend to any person "unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions" of the charitable institution. We construe the latter language as amplifying who is barred by charitable immunity, that is, beneficiaries and who is not, that is, nonbeneficiaries; we do not construe it as enlarging the category of those qualifying as beneficiaries to include persons who derive no

benefit from the charitable institution but render some service to it or to its beneficiary and thus promote its benefactions. On the appeal before us, plaintiff may have been rendering a service concerned in and related to the Cerebral Palsy Center's benefactions by assisting in transporting home a wheel chair patient. But by itself, in our view, that contribution for the center's benefit does not subject her to N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7.

We are bound by two rules of construction of N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7: that it is remedial legislation and should be liberally construed so as to afford immunity, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10; and that it should be construed in accordance with pre-statute decisional law defining charitable beneficiaries, Anasiewicz v. Sacred Heart Church, 74 N.J. Super. 532 (App.Div.1962), certif. den. 38 N.J. 305 (1962).

Boeckel v. Orange Memorial Hospital, 108 N.J.L. 453 (Sup.Ct.1932), aff'd 110 N.J.L. 508 (E. & A.1933), is a leading precedent applicable to this appeal. There a mother visiting her daughter, a patient in the hospital, was barred from recovery in negligence under the then common law doctrine of charitable immunity. The language of the lower court opinion, which was not disapproved or questioned by the State's highest court, encompasses as charitable beneficiaries not only close relatives but friends upon a hospital visit to a patient:

To the extent that her need went -- that need being a mother's wish to be with her sick child and to speed the latter's recovery by the inspiration of a home presence -- she was a recipient of the same benevolence, a beneficiary of the same charitable foundation, as was the patient. She had no invitation from the defendant, other than was to be implied from the privilege given by the rules of the institution to visit the sick. The opportunity afforded for her attendance was part of the charitable service the defendant was rendering to suffering humanity. In a very real sense the charitable impulses which served the patient served also the patient's mother, ...

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