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Loder v. St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church

November 25, 1996


On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Camden County.

Before Judges Havey, Brochin and Eichen. The opinion of the court was delivered by Eichen, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eichen

The opinion of the court was delivered by


In this negligence case, defendant St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church (the church) successfully moved for summary judgment based upon the defense of charitable immunity, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 (the Act). *fn1 Plaintiffs Donald D. Loder, Sr. (Loder) and Mary Loder appeal on the ground that the motion Judge erred in concluding that Loder was a beneficiary of the charitable and educational works the church was organized to advance as required by the Act.

On October 6, 1991, plaintiffs, along with their children and other family members, attended a church function known as the "Agora" festival (the festival) in Cherry Hill where they enjoyed a Greek dinner for which they were each charged a fee. Loder testified during his deposition that he learned about the festival from a newspaper advertisement and that it was not the first time he and his family had attended. The record reflects that Loder was not a member of the church, and that although he was raised as a protestant, he was not a member of any parish. Loder had gone to the church that evening "to enjoy the Greek food." He testified that "throughout dinner," there were "young girls [or children] dancing." He also testified that he and his family ate dinner in the church building rather than in the tent erected on the church grounds for that purpose. After dinner, Loder stopped at a booth to buy some ethnic food items. Immediately upon leaving the premises, as he was saying goodbye to his daughter, Loder slipped and fell off the edge of the sidewalk adjacent to the parking lot, seriously injuring himself.

The church submitted an affidavit stating it "is a not for profit corporation, which is tax exempt, and was organized exclusively for religion, charitable and educational purposes." The affidavit further recites that the festival is an annual church event which is run as "a fund raiser and to provide the general public with an insight into the rich traditions of the Hellenic culture and [Greek] Orthodox Christianity." No admission fee is charged generally, but "Greek meals are sold and Greek dancers perform during the meals." Individuals who attend the festival "are encouraged to explore the church and the various exhibits in order to learn more about the traditions of the Hellenic culture and the [Greek] Orthodox Christianity."

At the motion, plaintiffs' attorney conceded that the church is a charitable association, arguing instead that the fund-raising aspect of the event and the fact that the festival is mainly concerned with exposing people to Greek culture, not religion, precludes the event from being considered one of the "charitable works" of the church. Plaintiffs also maintained that even if the festival is considered one of the church's "charitable works," Loder was not a direct beneficiary of the works at the time of his injury. They contend that Loder's only connection with the church was his physical presence on the premises as part of a commercial venture being conducted and that he took no part in any of the charitable benefits of the church.

The church countered that the Greek Orthodox Church is a "unique" church in that it gets "its beliefs from the Greek culture" and that through the festival, the church is "trying to show the community at large ... the importance of the Hellenic culture in their orthodox religion." Although admitting it charges a dinner fee and that the festival is a fund raiser, the church maintained that its purpose was "to turn people on to the [Greek] Orthodox Christian religion as well as the Hellenic culture itself," and therefore the festival was part of its charitable works.

Accepting the church's position, the Judge found that the festival had a dual purpose: raising funds for the church and "introducing" and "educating the public with regard to the Hellenic heritage and culture ... expressed ... by the types of food and the nature of the festival...." In essence, the Judge determined that by attending the festival, Loder was "a beneficiary, to [some] degree of the works of [the church]" and that he was not a person "unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions of the [church]." See N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7a. Consequently, the Judge awarded summary judgment against plaintiffs on the ground that the church qualified for immunity from personal injury liability under the Act.

The requirements for charitable immunity under the Act direct a claimant of such immunity to demonstrate that the entity was formed for non-profit purposes; that it is organized exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes; and that it promoted such purposes at the time of the injury to the plaintiff, who was then a beneficiary of its charitable works. See Pelaez v. Rugby Labs., Inc., 264 N.J. Super. 450, 454, 624 A.2d 1053 (Law Div. 1993) (citations omitted); accord Parker v. St. Stephen's Urban Dev. Corp. Inc., 243 N.J. Super. 317, 324, 579 A.2d 360 (App. Div. 1990). Hence, in litigation concerning the Act, the focus is on whether the organization is a charitable association, and whether the injured plaintiff is a "beneficiary" of its charitable works. Rupp v. Brookdale Baptist Church, 242 N.J. Super. 457, 462-63, 577 A.2d 188 (App. Div. 1990).

In analyzing whether an entity qualifies for charitable immunity, the Act directs that

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 ...

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