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De Vries v. Habitat for Humanity

May 17, 1996

LAMBERT DE VRIES AND ALICE S. DE VRIES, HUSBAND AND WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. AND RUTHERFORD CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, DEFENDANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.

Approved for Publication May 17, 1996.

Before Judges King, Landau and Kleiner. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.j.a.d.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King

The opinion of the court was delivered by

KING, P.J.A.D.

I.

Defendant Paterson Habitat for Humanity (Habitat) appeals on leave granted from the denial of its motion for summary judgment in a suit brought by a volunteer who was injured while working on a Habitat construction project. Habitat contends that it is entitled to immunity under the charitable immunity statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7. We conclude that a volunteer worker who conferred a benefit on Habitat and received no benefit in return other than personal satisfaction was not a "beneficiary" under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 and is entitled to bring a tort action.

II.

Lambert De Vries and his wife filed suit against defendants Rutherford Congregational Church and Habitat, claiming that he had been injured while working as a volunteer on a Habitat construction project. The church obtained a voluntary dismissal because it did not own the property under construction.

Defendant Habitat claimed immunity from liability under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 and moved for summary judgment. Judge Hamer denied Habitat's summary judgment motion, finding that DeVries was not "a direct beneficiary" of Habitat. We granted Habitat's motion for leave to appeal. R. 2:2-4.

Plaintiff is a retired telephone company employee who first learned of Paterson Habitat For Humanity in the spring of 1991. While attending a church service, he heard that Habitat was seeking volunteer workers. He reported to a Habitat construction site the following Saturday and assisted in the yard clean-up of a completed unit. While there, he discovered that a group of volunteers usually assembled on Wednesdays to work on a house still under construction. He volunteered his services on most Wednesdays and a few Saturdays until construction on that house was completed. Later, he volunteered for another construction project. In all, he did volunteer construction work for Habitat fairly consistently for over a year.

On October 21, 1992 plaintiff reported to work on a project at 39 Stout Street in Paterson. He was told to perform electrical work on the second floor of a unit. There was no floor or ceiling dividing the levels and he had to climb a ladder to the second floor. He was holding onto a board when it separated from the wall as he climbed down the ladder. He fell about fourteen feet to the basement, landed on his back, and suffered serious injuries.

Habitat is a nonprofit corporation, organized for these purposes, according to its certificate of incorporation:

(1) To implement the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world working with economically disadvantaged people to help them create a better human habitat in which to live and work.

(2) To help poor but financially stable families obtain simple, adequate and easily affordable owner-occupied housing, using low down payments, ...


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