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Larissa Sapia and Her Husband, Joseph Sapia v. Hunterdon County Ymca


August 10, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-10265-09.

Per curiam.


Submitted June 6, 2012

Before Judges Cuff and Lihotz.

Plaintiff Larissa Sapia appeals from the summary judgment dismissal of her negligence complaint against defendant, the Hunterdon County YMCA (YMCA). We affirm.

We present the facts in a light most favorable to plaintiff, the party opposing summary judgment. Livsey v. Mercury Ins. Grp., 197 N.J. 522, 525 n.1 (2009); Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 523 (1995).

On August 15, 2008, plaintiff accompanied her parents, who do not speak English, to examine the YMCA's facility. Plaintiff's parents were contemplating membership at the YMCA and plaintiff aided them by acting as a translator. During the tour of the facility, membership services associate Robert Illes led the family to the aquatic area, which housed the pool and locker rooms. As plaintiff and her parents were about to enter the locker room, plaintiff slipped on a puddle of water located in front of a water fountain between the men's and women's locker room entrances. Plaintiff was transported by ambulance to the Hunterdon Medical Center and treated for a fractured left patella.

Plaintiff initiated her action seeking damages caused by the unsafe condition of the YMCA's premises. The YMCA moved for summary judgment, claiming its tort liability was limited by the Charitable Immunity Act (the Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11. Judge Jamie D. Happas granted the motion and, thereafter, denied plaintiff's motion for reconsideration.

On appeal, plaintiff argues the YMCA was not entitled to charitable immunity status because she "was not a beneficiary of the charity" and the organization was "not engaged in [a] charitable endeavor at the time of plaintiff's injury." We are not persuaded.

When reviewing a trial judge's grant or denial of summary judgment, we "employ the same standard that governs trial courts[.]" Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). In that regard, we afford all "legitimate inferences" in favor of the non-moving party to discern whether "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law." R. 4:46-2(c). Application of the Act's grant of immunity is a question of law, which we review de novo. Estate of Komninos v. Bancroft Neurohealth, Inc., 417 N.J. Super. 309, 318 (App. Div. 2010).

We also review the scope of immunity provided under the Act. In adopting the Act, the Legislature restored to our jurisprudence the common law doctrine of charitable immunity, Bieker v. Cmty. House of Moorestown, 169 N.J. 167, 174 (2001), shielding charitable entities from liability for negligence in certain circumstances. The Act's remedial aims "shall be liberally construed so as to afford immunity to the said corporations . . . in furtherance of the public policy for the protection of nonprofit corporations . . . organized for . . . charitable, educational or hospital purposes." N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10. Accord Sommers v. Union Beach First Aid Squad, 139 N.J. Super. 425, 428-429 (App. Div. 1976). The Act's public policy objectives preserve charitable trust funds by encouraging private philanthropic activity and "foster the private provision of services that benefit the general welfare, thus relieving the government of the obligation to provide those services." Komninos, supra, 417 N.J. Super. at 319. See also Nazzaro v. United States, 304 F. Supp. 2d 605, 610 (D.N.J. 2004).

The grant of immunity is "conditional," not automatic, Schultz v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, 95 N.J. 530, 551 (1984), and is dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case, Komninos, supra, 417 N.J. Super. at 319. Thus, an entity qualifies for charitable immunity if it "'(1) was formed for non-profit 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.'" Bieker, supra, 169 N.J. at 175 (quoting Hamel v. State, 321 N.J. Super. 67, 72 (App. Div. 1999)). Accord Hehre v. DeMarco, 421 N.J. Super. 501, 507 (App. Div. 2011), certif. denied, 209 N.J. 99 (2012). A nonprofit organization claiming the Act's protection, must prove its status, show it was engaged in its charitable function, and prove an injured plaintiff was a beneficiary of its charity when the tortious conduct occurred. See Abdallah v. Occupational Ctr. of Hudson Cnty., Inc., 351 N.J. Super. 280, 288 (App. Div. 2002) ("Charitable immunity is an affirmative defense, as to which, like all affirmative defenses, defendants bear the burden of persuasion.").

On appeal, plaintiff acknowledges the YMCA's status as a nonprofit, tax exempt entity, see 26 U.S.C.A. § 501(c)(3), and that it was organized for charitable purposes, confining her challenge to whether the YMCA satisfied the third prong of the charitable immunity test. Plaintiff disputes the YMCA was engaged in promoting its general charitable purpose and that she benefited from this charitable purpose when she was injured. Simply stated we must examine whether the YMCA, "'at the time in question, was engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance,' and whether plaintiff was truly a beneficiary" of the charity's efforts. Kasten v. Y.M.C.A., 173 N.J. Super. 1, 6 (App. Div. 1980) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Sommers, supra, 139 N.J. Super. at 431). These issues are intertwined.

We first examine whether plaintiff was a beneficiary as required by the Act. Immunity from liability does not extend to any person who is "unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions" of the charitable corporation. N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7a. A party is a beneficiary of the works of a charity when he or she receives, in some way, a benefit from the functioning of the entity at the time of the accident. Hehre, supra, 421 N.J. Super. at 508. A plaintiff's individual motivation is not relevant to whether he or she was a "direct recipient" of the charity. Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 175 N.J. 333, 350 (2003). "Beneficiary status '[does] not depend upon a showing that the claimant personally received a benefit from the works of the charity,' but rather 'whether the institution pleading the immunity . . . was engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance'" when the injury occurred. Hehre, supra, 421 N.J. Super. at 508 (alterations in original) (quoting Anasiewicz v. Sacred Heart Church of New Brunswick, 74 N.J. Super. 532, 536 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 38 N.J. 305 (1962)).

In Peacock v. Burlington County Historical Society, 95 N.J. Super. 205, 208-09 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 50 N.J. 290 (1967), we held the plaintiff's casual viewing of the exhibits in a historical building, while waiting for her husband to finish his research in the library was sufficient to characterize plaintiff as a beneficiary of the organization's charitable works because she received a benefit, at least to some degree, of the charitable purposes for which the historical society was organized; her subjective reason for being there was found irrelevant.

In Sommers, supra, 139 N.J. Super. at 432, the plaintiff, while visiting the non-profit first aid squad to make a donation, slipped and fell on ice that formed after a squad member washed his car. We determined the plaintiff was not a beneficiary because the first aid squad was not engaged in its charitable activity at the time of the fall, and the plaintiff was not receiving a benefit, but conferring a benefit. Ibid.

In Pomeroy v. Little League Baseball of Collingswood, 142 N.J. Super. 471, 475 (App. Div. 1976), the plaintiff was deemed a beneficiary when she was injured after the bleachers collapsed, because as a spectator, she benefited from the Little League's performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance.

In Gray v. St. Cecilia's School, 217 N.J. Super. 492, 493 (App. Div. 1987), the plaintiff suffered personal injuries when she arrived to pick-up her son at the conclusion of his school day. Although the plaintiff did not arrive on church property to participate in or personally benefit from the ministries of the church, we rejected her argument that her presence was unrelated to or unconcerned with the works of the church. Id. at 495. Rather, we concluded the plaintiff was a beneficiary for purposes of the Act, despite that "her presence was clearly incident to accomplishment of a purpose of her own, to insure her child should receive the benefits of a Catholic school education." Ibid. Consequently, her purpose at the church was found to be related to the benefaction of the school. Ibid.

In Bloom v. Seton Hall University, 307 N.J. Super. 487, 488 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 153 N.J. 405 (1998), we held a student who slipped and fell in an on-campus, university operated pub was a beneficiary of the educational institution. We found the pub was part of a student's campus experience and concluded entities must be entitled "substantial latitude in determining the appropriate avenues for achieving their objectives." Id. at 491.

The facts in this matter reflect plaintiff was participating in a tour of the YMCA's facilities, she suggests solely to translate for her parents. In aiding her parents, however, plaintiff was educated regarding the nature of available services offered by, and proposed goals of, the YMCA. While plaintiff suggests she did not intend to avail herself of the services of the YMCA, her presence was "clearly incident to accomplishment of" her own objectives, which were related to the charity's beneficence, namely, ensuring her parents could receive the benefits of the facility tour. Gray, supra, 217 N.J. Super. at 495.

Turning to the related question of whether the YMCA was advancing its charitable purposes at the time plaintiff fell, we consider the nature of the activity undertaken by the YMCA when plaintiff's cause of action arose. Plaintiff was injured while walking a guided tour of the facility where the YMCA conducts it activities and functions. This particular function "bear[s] a 'substantial and direct relationship' to the [entity]'s 'general purpose.'" Auerbach v. Jersey Wahoos Swim Club, 368 N.J. Super. 403, 413 (App. Div.) (alterations in original) (quoting Loder v. St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church, 295 N.J. Super. 297, 303 (App. Div. 1996)), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 458 (2004). Filed in 1921, the YMCA's certificate of incorporation identifies the purpose of the facility as "to promote the spiritual, social, intellectual and physical welfare . . . of Hunterdon County[.]" In conducting this general purpose, the YMCA has chosen to open its facility to guided tours in the hope that visitors experiencing the tour will become members. We afford "substantial latitude" to the manner the YMCA advances its charitable objectives. Bloom, supra, 307 N.J. Super. at 491. As such, the tour falls within the scope of effectuating the YMCA's charitable purpose.

Following our review, we conclude Judge Happas correctly analyzed the requisites of the Act, finding it applied to grant immunity to the YMCA. The grant of the YMCA's motion for summary judgment and dismissal of plaintiff's complaint will not be disturbed.



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