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Urszula Dawidowicz v. Polish National Catholic Church of the Holy Trinityst. Joseph


December 23, 2010


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-2262-09.

Per curiam.


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 Orthodox Church, 295 N.J. Super. 297 (App. Div. 1996), the judge erred in relying on that opinion.


We review the trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). Employing the same standard the trial court uses, ibid., we review the record to determine whether there are material factual disputes and, if not, whether the undisputed facts viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff nonetheless entitle defendant to judgment as a matter of law. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).

As relevant to this appeal, the Charitable Immunity Act provides:

a. 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-7(a) (emphasis added).]

Thus, the statutory elements required to support a claim of charitable immunity are: 1) the entity was formed for nonprofit purposes; 2) it is organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes; and 3) it was promoting such objectives and purposes at the time of the injury to the plaintiff, who was then a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of its charitable works. Orzech v. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ., 411 N.J. Super. 198, 205 (App. Div. 2009), certif. denied, 201 N.J. 443 (2010). There is no dispute that St. Joseph satisfied the first two elements. The dispute here concerns only the third.

The "beneficiary" requirement consists of two parts: 1) was the entity seeking immunity "'engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance'" at the time the injury occurred, Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 175 N.J. 333, 350 (2003) (quoting Anasiewicz v. Sacred Heart Church, 74 N.J. Super. 532, 536 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 38 N.J. 305 (1962)) and 2) was the injured party "a direct recipient of those good works." Ibid.

Before addressing plaintiff's precise claim that defendant was not entitled to charitable immunity because the event was merely a secular party organized for profit, and unrelated to any "religious, charitable or educational purpose," N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a), we pause to consider the standards that must be applied when evaluating a defendant's claim of charitable immunity. When analyzing whether an entity qualifies for the defense, the judge must abide by the Legislature's command that the charitable immunity statute "be liberally construed so as to afford immunity" to qualifying entities "in furtherance of the public policy for the protection of [such entities]." N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10.

Indeed, as we observed in Orzech, "[t]he language of the immunity provision reinforces this precept by granting immunity against any beneficiary 'to whatever degree.'" Orzech, supra, 411 N.J. Super. at 205 (quoting N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a)). Thus, for a person to be deemed a beneficiary within the meaning of the charitable immunity statute, at the time of the accident, he or she must be receiving the benefactions of the charitable organization "at least in some degree," so as not to be "unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the [entity's] benefactions[.]" Loder, supra, 295 N.J. Super. at 304 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

We turn now to the first part of the "beneficiary" portion of N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a). That section of the statute requires St. Joseph to establish that it was engaged in the performance of its religious objectives at the time of plaintiff's injury. Id. at 303. To satisfy that test, the activity must have a "substantial and direct relationship" to the church's general purpose. Ibid. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, charitable organizations have "substantial latitude in determining the appropriate avenues for achieving their objectives." Bloom v. Seton Hall Univ., 307 N.J. Super. 487, 491 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 153 N.J. 405 (1998).

A religious organization's purpose is not limited to narrow religious objectives. Ryan, supra, 175 N.J. at 350. Rather, the "works" of a church are broadly defined to include "'the advancement of the spiritual, moral, ethical and cultural life of the community in general.'" Ibid. (quoting Bianchi v. S. Park Presbyterian Church, 123 N.J.L. 325, 332-33 (E. & A. 1939)). For example, in Ryan, the plaintiff was injured while attending a meeting of the Mothers' Center, "a nonprofit group of parents and expectant mothers organized to exchange experiences and receive information regarding childbirth, child rearing, mothering, and family relationships." Id. at 336-37. The Mothers' Center held its meetings at Holy Trinity Church for a nominal fee. Id. at 338-39. The Supreme Court concluded that the church was engaged in its good works when it allowed the Mothers' Group to use its facility. Id. at 336. The Court explained that "[b]y supporting social outreach groups that enriched the life of the community at large, Holy Trinity fell well within the modern view . . . that the good works of churches are not limited to parochial concerns." Id. at 353.

In Loder, the defendant was a Greek Orthodox church that held an annual Greek festival open to the general public, known as the Agora Festival. 295 N.J. Super. at 299. There was no admission fee, but Greek meals were sold. Id. at 300. In addition, Greek dancers performed and exhibits were presented describing the traditions of Hellenic culture in the Greek Orthodox religion. Ibid. The church asserted that the Agora Festival had a dual purpose, to raise funds and to provide information to the general public on Greek culture and the church. Id. at 300. The plaintiff, who was not a member of the church or the Greek Orthodox faith, was injured while attending the festival. Id. at 299.

We concluded that "[w]ithout doubt, the church . . . was engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance, inasmuch as it was attempting to demonstrate to the community the rich traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church and 'the importance of the Hellenic culture in [the] orthodox religion' as expressed through Greek food and dance." Id. at 302. We also held that a charitable organization does not forfeit the defense of charitable immunity merely because the injured party paid a fee to participate in the event. Id. at 302-03.

We have no hesitancy in concluding that a Polish church hosting a New Year's Eve party that is aimed at the Polish community, and that is organized, advertised and attended by the priest, and at which Polish food is served and Polish music played, falls within the broad range of reasonable "religious" activities as that term has been construed in Ryan, Bianchi, and Loder. As Matz explained, St. Joseph is unique because it serves a specific ethnic group. Although the New Year's Eve party was open to the general public, it was designed to attract members of the Polish community because the fliers were printed in Polish and English and the priest encouraged parishioners to attend the party at the conclusion of a religious service that had been conducted in Polish.

Unquestionably, St. Joseph, a Polish church, hosted a party that was designed to promote Polish culture and provide an opportunity for other members of the Polish community to gather together and share their common traditions. So viewed, the party strengthened church affiliation by promoting Polish culture in the same way that St. Thomas promoted Hellenic culture in Loder, thereby entitling it to charitable immunity.

Indeed, we conclude that the charitable benefactions of St. Joseph here are even stronger than the religious attributes of the Agora Festival in Loder. There, the plaintiff was not Greek or a member of the Greek Orthodox faith, id. at 299, and the record contained no evidence that the priest was present at the Agora Festival or in any way involved in its planning.

We see no conceptual difference between the Polish New Year's Eve party here, and the Agora Festival in Loder or the Mothers' Group in Ryan. As we have already noted, the "works" of a church are broadly defined and "social outreach" that "enriche[s] the life of the community at large" qualifies for charitable immunity, Ryan, supra, 175 N.J. at 353, because the good works of churches are "not limited to parochial concerns" and must be broadly construed. Ibid.

This matter is unlike cases in which we have held that religious purposes were not being promoted. In Book v. Aguth Achim Anchai of Freehold, 101 N.J. Super. 559, 563 (App. Div. 1968), we concluded that a synagogue was not entitled to charitable immunity where a person was injured while playing a Bingo game, organized by and held at the synagogue, because the Bingo game was unrelated to the religious organization's good works. Nor is the present matter similar to Kasten v. Y.M.C.A., 173 N.J. Super. 1, 9 (App. Div. 1980), in which the plaintiff was injured at a ski area operated for profit by the Y.M.C.A., where the event was organized solely to generate profit for the organization's charitable purposes. Plaintiff's reliance on Book is misplaced because in Book, the Bingo game was a purely commercial venture that in no way advanced any of the goals or purposes of the synagogue. Book, supra, 101 N.J. Super. at 563. We therefore reject plaintiff's argument that the facts in this case bear similarity to those in Book and no similarity to those in Loder.

Applying the liberal view of charitable benevolence expressed in Loder, Bianchi and Ryan, we conclude the motion judge correctly determined that the New Year's Eve party furthered the religious objectives of St. Joseph. We turn to the second prong of the beneficiary portion of N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a), whether plaintiff was a beneficiary of the Church's benefactions at the time she was injured. Her claim that she attended the event in part because it was inexpensive is a subjective reason having no bearing on the determination of plaintiff's beneficiary status. Roberts v. Timber Birch-Broadmoore Athletic Ass'n, 371 N.J. Super. 189, 196 (App. Div. 2004); Rupp v. Brookdale Baptist Church, 242 N.J. Super. 457, 465 (App. Div. 1990). So long as the activity at which the plaintiff is injured is one that promotes the entity's charitable purposes, and the plaintiff is receiving the benefit of that activity, at least to some extent, it matters not that the plaintiff's reasons for attending the event differ from those motivating the entity to offer the event. Ibid. Here, the record demonstrates that plaintiff's decision to attend the party was based on the same factors that caused St. Joseph to host it. Plaintiff attended the party to be with other Polish people and to share in the common traditions of that culture, which is the very purpose for which the event was organized. We thus reject plaintiff's argument that she was not a beneficiary of the Church's works at the time she was injured.


Plaintiff also maintains there were material factual disputes that should have precluded the grant of summary judgment. She claims there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the purpose of the New Year's Eve party because Matz conceded that the party served both a fundraising and a community purpose and also because Matz's testimony regarding Father Kosc's motivation for proposing the event are not based on first-hand knowledge. These arguments are not persuasive. The record demonstrates that the parish committee held other secular celebrations, such as the Mother's and Father's Day breakfasts that were secular in purpose but that advanced the social component of the Church's mission by bringing members of the community together. Moreover, as is evident from Matz's testimony about those events, he had sufficient first-hand knowledge of St. Joseph's activities to entitle the judge to rely on them.

Plaintiff's final argument, that the motion judge's analysis was inconsistent because she held that the New Year's Eve party did not educate members of the community about Polish culture, but nonetheless found that the party had a sufficient cultural component, lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E).


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