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Morales by Martinez v. New Jersey Academy of Aquatic Sciences

June 19, 1997

CHRISTINA MORALES, A MINOR BY HER PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN, MARGARITA MARTINEZ, AND MARGARITA MARTINEZ, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
NEW JERSEY ACADEMY OF AQUATIC SCIENCES, DEFENDANT-THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, V. CITY OF CAMDEN BOARD OF EDUCATION, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



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

Approved for Publication June 19, 1997.

Before Judges Long, Skillman and A.a. Rodriguez. The opinion of the court was delivered by Skillman, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman

The opinion of the court was delivered by

SKILLMAN, J.A.D.

The issue presented by this appeal is whether the New Jersey Academy of Aquatic Sciences (Academy), a non-profit corporation which operates the New Jersey State Aquarium (Aquarium), is entitled to immunity from a suit under the Charitable Immunity Act (the Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11.

While visiting the Aquarium on a school trip, plaintiff Christina Morales slipped and fell on a piece of paper lying on a stairway, resulting in personal injuries. Plaintiff subsequently brought this action against the Academy, which was created, according to its certification of incorporation, "to operate and manage an aquarium in the State of New Jersey for the instruction, entertainment and recreation of the public; to acquire, exhibit and maintain living specimens of animals and to enhance their preservation and propagation; to acquire, exhibit and maintain a living collection of plants; to provide for scientific research involving the observation, study and understanding of animals and aquatic ecosystems; [and] to provide educational opportunities for the public with respect to aquatic animals and plant life." The Academy filed a third party complaint for contribution and indemnification against the City of Camden Board of Education, which supervised plaintiff's trip to the Aquarium.

After discovery was completed, the Academy moved for summary judgment on the ground that it is entitled to immunity from suit under the Act. This motion was supported by the affidavit and deposition of the Academy's Director of Finance, which indicate that even though the Academy leases the Aquarium from the State for only $1, the Academy is solely responsible for the Aquarium's operations, which are financed through admission fees, sales of food and novelty items, proceeds from short-term rentals to outside parties, and charitable donations. The Director of Finance also stated that "the Academy does not have any arrangement for financial aid, grants or assistance from the state government." Plaintiff filed a cross motion for leave to file an amended complaint adding the State and the Camden Waterfront Management Corporation as defendants.

The trial court granted the Academy's motion for summary judgment, holding that it is entitled to immunity under the Act, and denied plaintiff's cross-motion. Plaintiff appeals. We affirm.

N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 provides in pertinent part:

No 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 person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation, society or association, where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works 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 person is one unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions of such corporation, society or association.

In addition, N.J.S.A. 2A:53-9 provides in pertinent part:

The buildings and places actually used for ... historical societies, public libraries, ... charitable ... purposes, the moral and mental improvement of men, women and children, ... however named or designated, operated and maintained for equivalent uses, when so operated and maintained by any such nonprofit corporation, society or association, shall be deemed to be operated and maintained for a religious, charitable, educational or hospital purpose.

Thus, for a suit to be barred by the Act, a defendant must be a "nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes," and the plaintiff must be "a beneficiary" of its "works." See Parker v. St. Stephen's Urban Dev. Corp., 243 N.J. Super. 317, 324, 579 A.2d 360 (App. Div. 1990). Since it is undisputed that plaintiff was "a beneficiary" of the Academy's operation of the Aquarium, see Pomeroy v. Little League Baseball of Collingswood, 142 N.J. Super. 471, 475, 362 A.2d 39 ...


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