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DeVries v. Paterson Habitat for Humanity

March 11, 1997


On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 290 N.J. Super. 479 (1996).

Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in this opinion.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Lambert DeVries, et al v. Habitat For Humanity, et al (A-105-96)

(NOTE: This Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's affirmance of the judgment of the Appellate Division is based substantially on the reasons expressed in the Judge King's opinion below.)

Argued February 4, 1997 -- Decided March 11, 1997


The issue on appeal is whether Lambert DeVries, a volunteer laborer on a Habitat For Humanity (Habitat) construction project, was a beneficiary of the works of Habitat or was outside of the benefactions of the charitable organization for the purposes of the Charitable Immunity Statute (the Statute).

DeVries is a retired telephone company employee who had performed volunteer construction work for Habitat fairly consistently for over one year beginning in the spring of 1991. In October of 1992, while climbing a ladder to perform electrical work on a Habitat project, DeVries fell about fourteen feet and landed on his back, suffering serious injuries.

Habitat is a nonprofit corporation organized for certain charitable and religious purposes. DeVries and his wife filed a complaint in personal injury against Habitat and Rutherford Congregational Church. The Church obtained a voluntary dismissal because it did not own the property under construction. Habitat filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming immunity from liability pursuant to the Statute. The trial Judge denied Habitat's motion, finding that DeVries was not a direct beneficiary of Habitat and, therefore, Habitat is not immune from liability.

Habitat appealed to the Appellate Division. In its arguments before the appellate panel, Habitat claimed that DeVries is a beneficiary of the organization. In support of that argument, Habitat cited the following purposes of the organization, as specified in Habitat's certificate of incorporation: to provide Christians and others with opportunities to volunteer their time and efforts; and generally to promote and advance religious, charitable, social and educational purposes. Based on those stated purposes, Habitat contended that DeVries and other volunteer workers are intended beneficiaries of the organization.

The Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the trial court, concluding that a volunteer worker who conferred a benefit on Habitat and received no benefit in return other than personal satisfaction is not a beneficiary under the Statute. Therefore, DeVries is entitled to bring a tort action against Habitat.

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division reviewed the history of the common-law charitable-immunity doctrine, noting that it was abolished by case law in 1958 and that the Statute, enacted shortly thereafter, granted limited immunity from liability for certain nonprofit corporations. Under the Statute, nonprofit organizations are still liable for injuring anyone unconcerned in, unrelated to, and outside of the benefactions of the nonprofit entity.

The court refused to find that the corporate purposes enumerated in the certificate of incorporation were dispositive of whether an individual is a beneficiary under the Statute. In addition, the court reasoned that a plaintiff's subjective motivation should not control the determination of status as beneficiary under the Statute. According to the Appellate Division, personal motivations are not the test, even when those motivations match a stated purpose in the organization's certificate of incorporation. Rather, the test should be whether the injured person was at the time bestowing benefactions on the charity or receiving them. The Appellate Division noted that DeVries conferred a significant benefit on Habitat and received intangible personal satisfaction in return. Nevertheless, the court concluded that DeVries is ...

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