On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-6207-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Lihotz and St. John.
Plaintiffs Marisa Thomas Hanley and Laurence Thomas, individually and as co-administrators ad prosequendum for the heirs-at-law of Edwin Ellis, and as co-administrators of the estate, appeal from an order dated July 31, 2009 (amended September 29, 2009), granting in part, defendants Collingswood Manor's (CM) and United Methodist Homes' (UMH) motion for partial summary judgment. The motion judge determined that defendants are protected by the New Jersey Charitable Immunity Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7. Because immunity granted by the Act is an affirmative defense, the burden of persuasion is placed on the non-profit organization seeking to invoke the defense. The matter proceeded to trial. The jury returned a verdict of no cause for action. On appeal, plaintiff argues the motion judge erred by ruling that defendant was immune from liability for negligence due to charitable immunity. Plaintiff also contends that evidential errors require a new trial.
Our examination into the soundness of the partial summary judgment order in question is hampered by the motion judge's failure to adequately explain her reasons for the decision. Therefore, in light of the record and applicable law, and following our review of the arguments advanced on appeal, we remand to the trial court for fact-sensitive findings and legal conclusions.
The record on appeal reveals the following facts and procedural history relevant to plaintiffs' complaint, pretrial motions of defendants, as well as the subsequent trial and post-trial motions and orders.
Eighty-one-year-old decedent Edwin Ellis was a resident at CM, a non-profit assisted living facility, licensed as a comprehensive personal care home (CPCH). CM is located in Collingswood and is owned, operated, and controlled by nonprofit corporation UMH. There is no relationship between the Board of UMH and the Board of the Methodist Church nor is there any legal affiliation between the parties. On February 14, 2007, decedent died after succumbing to injuries he sustained from falling in his bedroom on January 18, 2007. Ellis suffered a vertebral fracture, which left him hospitalized for the final month of his life. The fall was documented as the fourth time, since his April 2006 admission to CM, Ellis had fallen and sustained injuries.
Plaintiffs' complaint alleged defendants were liable for Ellis' death, as the CM staff knew Ellis was at risk of future falls, but negligently failed to use ordinary care commonly exercised by residential care facilities and failed to properly secure him in his wheelchair or supervise him in his bedroom.
They further alleged Ellis died as a result of defendants' gross negligence in failing to properly monitor and provide a safe environment for him, and failing to properly evaluate and institute proper fall prevention intervention despite his previous falls.
Defendants asserted the affirmative defense of charitable immunity under the Act, which would immunize them for simple negligence, but not intentional conduct, reckless and wanton conduct, or gross negligence.
Plaintiffs deposed the Vice President of Operations for UMH, Eleanor M. Kinsey-Skroski, who stated:
[Defendants'] philosophy is once a resident moves into any level of care, they're never asked to leave because they can't afford us any longer, unlike some assisted living providers or nursing homes which would say, we don't take Medicaid, and have the person move out to a Medicaid facility.
Once they move into our system, they can stay for the rest of their lives. If they spin (sic) down their funds honestly, so to speak, and they truly do run out of the funds that were originally there when we originally approved the admission, we will ask the fellowship fund, that part of our organization, to fund that person's care the difference between whatever Medicaid dollars they can get, municipal funding they can get, and the normal cost of their care is paid for by fellowship. It's made up by the fellowship fund.
Additionally, by affidavit she certified that:
1. I am the Vice President of Operations of United Methodist Homes.
2. United Methodist Homes is a non-profit corporation organized under the laws of New Jersey.
3. United Methodist Homes has been organized exclusively for religious and ...