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Patterson v. Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


June 24, 2008

JOAN PATTERSON AND ALBERT PATTERSON, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
LIBERTY CORNER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, A/K/A PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF LIBERTY CORNER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, L-159-07.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted on June 10, 2008

Before Judges Coburn and Waugh.

Pursuant to leave granted, defendant Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church ("Liberty Corner") appeals from an order denying it summary judgment. The trial court ruled that Liberty Corner had failed to prove that plaintiff Joan Patterson was a beneficiary for the purposes of the Charitable Immunity Act (the "Act"), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -10. We disagree, and reverse and remand for entry of summary judgment in favor of Liberty Corner.

I .

On February 1, 2005, while picking up her 17-year old son from a youth meeting at Liberty Corner, Mrs. Patterson slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the driveway of the youth director's house. As a result of the fall, she suffered multiple fractures in her wrist. The complaint alleged that Liberty Corner had negligently maintained the driveway.

About a year before Mrs. Patterson's fall, her son became a member of Liberty Corner. He attended regular Bible study meetings and youth events at Liberty Corner in the year leading up to February 1, 2005. Although Mrs. Patterson testified that her son's attendance at this church was not her first choice, in part because of the difference in religious beliefs between the Presbyterian Church and her Roman Catholic Church, she preferred that he be involved in religious activities somewhere as opposed to nowhere. For that reason, she generally provided transportation to and from the youth events at Liberty Corner. She also attended a few religious services at Liberty Corner, including her son's admission as a member of the congregation.

On the night she was injured, her son was attending a Tuesday night Bible study at Liberty Corner, followed by "hanging out" at the youth director's house, which is adjacent to the actual church and is owned by Liberty Corner. When she arrived at the house around 9:00 p.m. to get her son, she walked up to the house to tell him she had arrived. When she was walking back to her car, she slipped and fell on a patch of ice near the driver's side of her car.

II.

The Act, in pertinent part, provides the following as to nonprofit organizations' immunity from liability:

No nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for religious . . . purposes . . . shall . . . 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:53-7(a) (emphasis added).]

Immunity granted by the Act is an affirmative defenses, thus placing the burden of persuasion on the non-profit organization seeking to invoke the defense. Abdallah v. Occupational Ctr. of Hudson County, Inc., 351 N.J. Super. 280, 288 (App. Div. 2002).

The issue presented is whether Mrs. Patterson was a "beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works" of Liberty Corner, in which case Liberty Corner would be immune from the suit, or whether she was "unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions" of Liberty Corner, in which case Liberty Corner would not be immune from liability. N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a); Anasiwicz v. Sacred Heart Church, 74 N.J. Super. 532, 534-35 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 38 N.J. 305 (1962). As we have noted in prior decisions, the Act is remedial legislation that must be construed to afford immunity, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10, and the Act should be construed in accordance with pre-statute case law defining charitable beneficiaries, Harrington v. Clara Maass Hosp. & Cerebral Palsy Ctr., 208 N.J. Super. 365, 369 (App. Div. 1986) (citing Anasiwicz, supra, 74 N.J. Super. at 535-36). The case law is clear that a church has immunity from liability for a church member who is injured while entering or exiting the church based on the rationale that the individual is a beneficiary of the church's "religious mission" during the service but also while entering or exiting to obtain the benefit of the service. Thomas v. Second Baptist Church of Long Branch, 337 N.J. Super. 173, 176 (App. Div. 2001); see also, Monaghan v. Holy Trinity Church, 275 N.J. Super. 594, 598-99 (App. Div. 1994); Bixen v. Christ Episcopal Church Parish House, 166 N.J. Super. 148, 152 (App. Div. 1979); Vitolo v. St. Peter's Church, 118 N.J. Super. 35, 36037 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 60 N.J. 285 (1972).

In addition, to determine whether someone is a beneficiary for the purposes of the Act, we have noted that whether a plaintiff actually benefited spiritually from a religious organization is not relevant to the determination, but rather the "controlling fact" is whether the religious organization "contributed to the preservation of moral or sociological concepts held by the community generally." Anasiwicz, supra, 74 N.J. Super. at 538.

In the instant case, there is no doubt that Mrs. Patterson benefited from her son's attendance at Liberty Corner. By her own admission, she preferred that he attend this church rather than no church at all. In a similar factual scenario, we found that a mother who was injured while picking up her child from a Catholic school was a beneficiary for the purposes of the Act because "her presence [at the school] was clearly incident to accomplishment of a purpose of her own," which was to "insure that her child should receive the benefits of a Catholic school education . . . ." Gray v. St. Cecelia's Sch., 217 N.J. Super. 492, 495 (App. Div. 1987). Likewise, Mrs. Patterson approved her son's attendance at Liberty Corner and participated therein by taking him back and forth to these events, even though she may have preferred the Roman Catholic Church. In choosing to permit him to attend Liberty Corner, she benefited from the religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical education that her son was receiving. Therefore, for the purposes of the Act, Mrs. Patterson is a beneficiary under the language of the statute, thus making Liberty Corner immune from liability for her injuries.

Reversed and remanded for entry of summary judgment in favor of Liberty Corner.

20080624

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