On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Docket No. L-1935-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fuentes, Ashrafi, and Newman.
The opinion of the court was delivered by FUENTES, J.A.D.
At all times relevant to this case, plaintiff Alfred Hehre was a student at Holy Spirit High School, an educational institution affiliated with and sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Camden. Defendant David Pfeifer was a teacher and track coach at Holy Spirit. Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident while being driven to a school-sponsored track meet by a fellow student-athlete. Plaintiff filed suit against the driver, alleging negligent operation of the car; the owners of the driver's car under an agency theory of liability; and the track coach, Holy Spirit High School, and the Catholic diocese of Camden (the school defendants), claiming these school defendants failed to provide safe transportation to the school-sponsored event.
After joinder of issue, the school defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff's claims were barred under New Jersey's Charitable Immunity Act (CIA or Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11. The trial court denied the motion, holding that N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c)(2) exempts from immunity a "trustee, director, officer, employee, agent, servant or volunteer" of a charity who causes "damage as the result of the negligent operation of a motor vehicle." Under the trial court's construction of the statute, plaintiff can invoke the exemption to immunity under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c)(2) if he can prove to a jury that the student-athlete who drove him to the track meet was acting as an agent of the school defendants at the time of the accident.
By leave granted, the school defendants now appeal arguing the trial court erred when it construed the exemption provided in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c)(2) as vitiating the otherwise clear immunity afforded to charitable entities in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a). We agree and reverse. The exemption to immunity provided in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c)(2) applies only to a "trustee, director, officer, employee, agent, servant or volunteer" of a charitable entity who causes "damage as the result of the negligent operation of a motor vehicle." Under the plain meaning of the language used by the Legislature, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c)(2) does not vitiate the immunity granted by the Legislature in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a) to an associated charitable entity, such as a school or diocese. The exemption to immunity in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c)(2) also does not apply to the track coach because plaintiff does not allege that the coach negligently operated a motor vehicle involved in the accident.
We derive the following facts from the record developed before the trial court.
On May 5, 2007, plaintiff was a passenger in a motor vehicle driven by Robert DeMarco Jr. and owned by his parents Robert and Carol DeMarco. Plaintiff and DeMarco Jr. were student-athletes and teammates on the track team at Holy Spirit High School, a Catholic secondary school located in the Diocese of Camden. On the day in question, the team gathered at the High School before departing for a nearby track meet. Also present was defendant Pfeifer, the team's coach and a history and psychology teacher at the High School.
Because the High School was not providing group transportation to the meet, DeMarco Jr. agreed to drive plaintiff and two other teammates in his parents' vehicle.*fn1 The remaining members of the team traveled in Pfeifer's vehicle. Although the record is not settled as to whether DeMarco Jr. volunteered to drive his teammates or was requested or ordered to do so by Pfeifer,*fn2 we ultimately conclude this uncertainty is legally inconsequential in the context of the issues raised in this appeal.
The accident at issue here occurred while DeMarco Jr. was attempting to merge onto the Atlantic City Expressway. DeMarco Jr. lost control of the vehicle and collided with an automobile driven by an individual who is not a party in this litigation. Pfeifer's vehicle was not involved in the accident. ...