On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-2262-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued November 30, 2010 - Decided Before Judges Baxter and Newman.
Plaintiff Urszula Dawidowicz appeals a March 5, 2010 Law Division order granting summary judgment to defendant, Polish National Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity - St. Joseph (the Church or St. Joseph), based upon the Charitable Immunity Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11. St Joseph, which serves members of the Polish community, held a New Year's Eve party hosted by its priest, at which Polish music was played and Polish food was served. The event's stated purpose was to provide an opportunity for the Polish community to gather. We agree with the motion judge's determination that, at the time plaintiff was injured at the New Year's Eve party, the Church was engaged in the performance of the charitable objective it was organized to advance and plaintiff was a beneficiary of the Church's benefactions. We affirm.
Born in 1960, plaintiff lived in Poland until April 2004, when she emigrated to the United States and settled in Linden. Her primary language is Polish and at the time the event in question occurred, plaintiff was a member of St. Theresa's Church in Linden, where the Mass was conducted in Polish. Plaintiff had several friends who were members of St. Joseph and one of her friends told her that St. Joseph would be having a New Year's Eve party on December 31, 2007. Thereafter, plaintiff attended religious services at St. Joseph, once to learn more about the Church and on a second occasion to gain information about the party. Both Masses were conducted in Polish. At the second Mass, the priest, Father Jan Kosc, invited the congregation to attend the New Year's Eve party and advised parishioners of the cost. At the conclusion of the Mass that day, plaintiff purchased a ticket.
Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she always spent New Year's Eve at a church because "they usually have the biggest communities of Polish people." She was interested in this particular party because it was inexpensive and friends of hers were planning to attend. At the party, plaintiff tripped and fell and sustained injuries.
St. Joseph is a nonprofit entity organized solely for religious purposes. The church is located in Linden, which has a substantial Polish population. According to Kenneth E. Matz, chairman of St. Joseph's parish committee, the church "serves the local community in and around Linden culturally, socially, and spiritually." Matz explained that as a Polish church, St. Joseph's "tr[ies] to draw some of the Polish people into our community."
St. Joseph hosts a variety of events including an annual picnic, a rummage sale, and breakfasts or dinners on religious and some secular holidays, such as Mother's and Father's Day. Although those events usually generate a small profit for the Church, Matz observed that they are of value regardless of profit "because a lot of times we try to just get the people together to keep them more as a family unit."
St. Joseph had not hosted a New Year's Eve party prior to the night in question. The priest and his wife proposed the New Year's Eve party and the priest's wife prepared the food, hired a disc jockey and prepared the hall for the party. Matz was not certain how many people attended, but estimated that the number of attendees ranged from fifty to one hundred. The party was publicized to St. Joseph members through the Church bulletin as well as by announcements at religious services, and to the local community through advertisements in local newspapers and fliers in local stores, in both Polish and English.
The flier described the event as the "2008 New Year's Eve Ball" to be held at St. Joseph's church hall with music, dancing, food and champagne. The parish committee considered the event a success because the Church was "able to get a bunch of people together to have a good time, enjoy each other's company, and make a profit." When asked whether the New Year's Eve party advanced the Church's religious purpose, Matz responded that it did, "[by] keeping the community together with - with a purpose and somewhere to get together and be part of a church organization." He elaborated, "we are a Polish church and serve the community." Matz explained that the Church had not hosted another New Year's Eve party since because no one volunteered to organize the event.
St. Joseph moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was immune from
suit under the provisions of the Act. At the beginning of her ruling,
the motion judge emphasized that the applicable caselaw requires a
liberal construction of the Charitable Immunity statute, and she noted
that N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a) contains language specifying that immunity
applies whenever the injured person is a beneficiary of the
defendant's charitable purposes "to whatever extent."*fn1
The motion judge found that the New Year's Eve party was a
"secular" event with "a Polish flavor." The judge observed, however,
that the party "promote[d] Polish culture" by providing an opportunity
for Polish people to share Polish food and music and come together
with others who share their "traditions." The judge also observed that
the result would be different if St. Joseph had merely rented out the
parish hall to members of a different religion, but "[t]his is not
that" because "they [St. Joseph] were running this." She concluded
that the party promoted defendant's religious and cultural objectives,
and that plaintiff was a beneficiary of those objectives because she received exactly what she wanted, namely, the opportunity to
spend New Year's Eve with other members of the Polish community.
On appeal, plaintiff argues that: 1) because, at the time she was injured, St. Joseph was not engaged in the performance of the objective it was organized to advance, the motion judge erred in holding that defendant was entitled to charitable immunity; and 2) because the facts here are "fundamentally distinguishable" from those in Loder v. St. Thomas Greek ...