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O'Connell v. State

May 06, 2002

BRENDAN O'CONNELL, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, A BODY CORPORATE AND POLITIC, AND MONTCLAIR STATE, A UNIVERSITY OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND JOHN DOE CORP. 1-5 AND RICHARD ROE 1-5, DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 335 N.J. Super. 427 (2000).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

In this appeal, the Court determines whether Montclair State University (Montclair), a nonprofit, public educational institution, is entitled to immunity under the Charitable Immunity Act (CIA), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11.

In October 1995, O'Connell was a full-time student at Montclair. He was injured when he fell down a staircase in a campus amphitheater. O'Connell brought suit against Montclair and the State of New Jersey seeking damages for his injuries. Montclair filed an answer raising as affirmative defenses the New Jersey Torts Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 59:12-3, and immunity from suit under the CIA.

Montclair moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted the motion. The court found that O'Connell was a "beneficiary" under the CIA and, therefore, Montclair was entitled to charitable immunity. The court did not reach the issue of the TCA defense.

The Appellate Division reversed, 335 N.J. Super. 427, 437 (App. Div. 2000), holding that Montclair was not entitled to charitable immunity because the university's judgments are paid from public funds pursuant to the TCA and not from the funds of the educational institution. In so holding, the court expressly disagreed with Graber v. Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zazzali, J.

Argued November 5, 2001

In this appeal we must determine whether Montclair State University (Montclair), a nonprofit, public educational institution, is entitled to immunity under the Charitable Immunity Act (CIA), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11. According to the CIA, an entity is entitled to immunity from suit by a beneficiary if the entity is a "nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes." N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7a. Plaintiff Brendan O'Connell (O'Connell) alleges that because Montclair is a State college and receives public funding, it is not entitled to charitable immunity under the CIA, which O'Connell contends covers only private entities.

I.

In October 1995, O'Connell, a full-time student at Montclair, was injured when he fell down a staircase in a campus amphitheater. He suffered fractured ribs and a fractured elbow and was hospitalized for several days. O'Connell subsequently brought suit against Montclair and the State of New Jersey, seeking damages for his personal injuries.

Montclair filed an answer raising affirmative defenses under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 59:12-3, and asserting that it was immune from suit under the CIA. Montclair also moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, finding that O'Connell was a "beneficiary" under the statute and that therefore Montclair was entitled to charitable immunity. Because the court concluded that O'Connell's action was barred by the CIA, it did not reach the applicability of Montclair's defenses under the TCA.

The Appellate Division reversed. O'Connell v. State, 335 N.J. Super. 427, 437 (App. Div. 2000). The court held that despite Montclair's satisfaction of the CIA's "plain language" requirements for immunity, Montclair was not entitled to charitable immunity because the university's judgments are paid from public funds pursuant to the TCA and not from the funds of the educational institution. Id. at 434. According to the court, common law charitable immunity did not apply to public entities "whose liability judgments are paid by public funds." Id. at 434-35. Thus, the court determined that, based on the underlying purpose of common law charitable immunity, the Legislature did not intend that the CIA apply to public entities. Ibid. The court concluded that because Montclair is a public entity, it was not entitled to assert the defense of charitable immunity. Id. at 433-35. In so holding, the panel expressly disagreed with Graber v. Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, 313 N.J. Super. 476 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 156 N.J. 409 (1998), in which a different panel of the Appellate Division reached the opposite result. Id. at 434.

We granted Montclair's petition for certification, 168 N.J. 289 (2001), and now reinstate the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Montclair.

II.

"?In the interpretation of a statute our overriding goal has consistently been to determine the Legislature's intent.'" Young v. Schering Corp., 141 N.J. 16, 25 (1995) (quoting Roig v. Kelsey, 135 N.J. 500, 515 (1994)). As a general rule, that process begins with an examination of the plain language of the statute. Hubbard v. Reed, 168 N.J. 387, 392 (2001); State v. Butler, 89 N.J. 220, 226 (1982). Where a statute is clear and unambiguous on its face and admits of only one interpretation, a court must infer the Legislature's intent from the statute's plain meaning. V.C. v. M.J.B., 163 N.J. 200, 217, cert. denied, 531 U.S. 926, 121 S. Ct. 302, 148 L. Ed. 2d 243 (2000); Franklin Tower One v. N.M., 157 N.J. 602, 613 (1999). A court may neither rewrite a plainly-written enactment of the Legislature nor presume that the Legislature intended something other than that expressed by way of the plain language. State v. Afanador, 134 N.J. 162, 171 (1993); State v. Wright, 107 N.J. 488, 495 (1987). "[W]e need delve no deeper than the act's literal terms to divine the Legislature's intent." Butler, supra, 89 N.J. at 226.

In the present appeal, we are called on to interpret the scope of charitable immunity as set forth in the CIA. First recognized in this State in 1925, D'Amato v. Orange Memorial Hospital, 101 N.J.L. 61 (E. & A. 1925), charitable immunity is grounded in the common law principle that

it would be contrary to the interests of society that funds dedicated to a charitable use be permitted to be diverted or diminished by the payment of judgments resulting from the torts of agents, servants or employees of the organization or institution administering the charity where suit is instituted by the beneficiary of the charity. [Jones v. St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, 7 N.J. 533, 537 (1951).]

After the doctrine fell into "disfavor as a matter of public policy," Schultz v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, 95 N.J. 530, 536 (1984), this Court abolished it in 1958. Benton v. Y.M.C.A., 27 N.J. 67, 69 (1958); Collopy v. Newark Eye & Ear Infirmary, 27 N.J. 29, 39 (1958); Dalton v. St. Luke's Catholic Church, 27 N.J. 22, 24 (1958). In response, the Legislature adopted the CIA, reinstating "the common law doctrine as it had been judicially defined by the courts of this State." Wiklund v. Presbyterian Church of Clifton, 90 N.J. Super. 335, 338 (Cty. Ct. 1966) (citing Anasiewicz v. Sacred Heart Church, 74 N.J. Super. 532, 535 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 38 N.J. 305 (1962)).

According to the CIA:

No nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes or its trustees, directors, officers, employees, agents, servants or volunteers 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 [N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7a.]

Thus, an entity qualifies for charitable immunity when it "(1) was formed for nonprofit purposes; (2) is organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes; and (3) was promoting such objectives and purposes at the time of the injury to plaintiff who was then a beneficiary of the charitable works." Hamel v. State, 321 N.J. Super. 67, 72 (App. Div. 1999); see also Loder v. St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church, 295 N.J. Super. 297, 301 (App. Div. 1996) ("[I]n litigation concerning the [CIA], the focus is on ...


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