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Green v. Monmouth University

Supreme Court of New Jersey

May 7, 2019

Frances Green, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Monmouth University, Defendant-Respondent, and Press Communications, LLC, d/b/a Thunder 106, and AEG Worldwide, Defendants.

          Argued January 3, 2019

          On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 452 N.J.Super. 542 (App. Div. 2018).

          Stewart M. Leviss argued the cause for appellant (Berkowitz, Lichtstein, Kuritsky, Giasullo & Gross, attorneys; Stewart M. Leviss, on the briefs).

          John N. Kaelin, III, argued the cause for respondent (Schwab, Haddix and Millman, attorneys; John N. Kaelin, III, on the briefs).

          Eric G. Kahn argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association for Justice (Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins, attorneys; Eric G. Kahn, of counsel and on the brief).

          FERNANDEZ-VINA, J., writing for the Court.

         Plaintiff Frances Green brought suit against Monmouth University for injuries she allegedly sustained while attending a Martina McBride concert that was held in a University facility but was open to the public. In this appeal, the Court considers whether the University is immune from Green's suit pursuant to the Charitable Immunity Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11. Under the circumstances of this case, the answer to that question hinges on whether, in hosting the concert, the University was engaged in performing the educational objectives it was organized to promote and whether Green was a direct recipient of its works when she attended the concert.

         Defendant Monmouth University is a non-profit educational institution. In its certificate of incorporation, the University states that its "purposes" include providing "for the holding of meetings and events open to the public, including classes, conferences, lectures, forums, exhibitions, conventions, plays, motion pictures, concerts, and athletic contests, all calculated, directly or indirectly, to advance the cause of education and wholesome recreation."

         Monmouth University and Thoroughbred Management, Inc. (TMI), a for-profit corporation, entered into an agreement that allowed TMI to use the University's Multipurpose Activity Center (MAC) for the McBride concert. TMI paid a $10, 000 rental fee. According to the Vice President of Student Life at Monmouth University, the intent of that fee was "to cover the cost of the set up of the facility, the breakdown, the police costs, [and] fire safety," among other components. In addition, guests were charged a "facility fee" of $3.00 per ticket, the proceeds of which were split evenly between the University and TMI. The Vice President also testified that the University did not expect to make money on its fee but instead hoped to cover its direct costs.

         While attending the concert, Green was climbing a set of stairs in an area that she alleges was poorly lit. As Green stepped onto what appeared to be a solid surface, her foot slipped down to the step below, causing her to fall forward. Her face struck the back of a seat in one of the rows adjacent to the stairs. A University police officer walked to where Green fell and observed a rubber strip sticking out from the step.

         Green filed a complaint against the University. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the University. Noting that the University's resolution states that the University's purposes include holding concerts for the general public to advance the cause of education and wholesome recreation, the court determined that the McBride concert fell "squarely within those purposes." And the court found that, even though Green was not a University student, she was a beneficiary of its educational purpose when she attended the concert. The trial court thus concluded that charitable immunity applied against Green's claim.

         Green filed a timely appeal, and, in a split decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's determination. 452 N.J.Super. 542, 561 (App. Div. 2018). The dissenting judge determined immunity to be inappropriate in light of the income the University derived from the concert and the disputed question of whether McBride's concert was an "artistic performance" that served the University's educational goals. Green appealed to the Court as of right based on the dissent. See R. 2:2-1(a)(2).

         HELD: The concert was promoting the University's educational objectives and purposes at the time of Green's injury, and as a result, Monmouth University is afforded charitable immunity. Although Green was not a Monmouth University student, she was a beneficiary under the language of the Charitable Immunity Act.

         1. The Legislature prescribed that the Charitable Immunity Act "shall be deemed to be remedial and shall be liberally construed so as to afford immunity to" nonprofit entities "organized for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes." N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10. The Act sets out the contours of the immunity it grants to nonprofit entities in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a). "Distilling the statutory language to its essence," the Court has determined that "an entity qualifies for charitable immunity when it (1) was formed for nonprofit 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." Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 175 N.J. 333, 342 (2003). There is no dispute here that the University satisfies the first two prongs of that standard. The third prong of the charitable immunity test involves two inquiries: (1) whether the organization pleading the immunity, at the time in question, was engaged in the performance of the objectives it was organized to advance; and (2) whether the injured party was a direct recipient of those good works. Id. at 350. (pp. 15-18)

         2. Although some nonprofits provide a wide range of services beyond their core purpose, such activities do not eviscerate their entitlement to immunity as long as the services or activities further the charitable objectives the entities were organized to advance. The Court reviews a number of cases and focuses on a case similar to this one, in which the Appellate Division held that Princeton University was "entitled to immunity from a claim arising out of the rental of an auditorium to another non-profit entity that use[d] the facility for . . . educational purposes" -- a concert. Lax v. Princeton Univ., 343 N.J.Super. 568, 573 (App. Div. 2001). In Lax, the Appellate Division stated that the Princeton Chamber Symphony was a nonprofit corporation that rented an auditorium from Princeton University, also a nonprofit corporation, for approximately $5000 per concert. Id. at 569. The plaintiff, who was not a Princeton student, purchased a ticket and attended a Symphony concert, where the plaintiff fell. Id. at 570. The panel found that the plaintiff's subsequent tort claims were barred by charitable immunity as to both the orchestra and the university. Id. at 572. The Lax court's ruling and the other opinions discussed cumulatively reflect the liberal construction the Legislature has prescribed for the Charitable Immunity Act. Courts have found institutions offering an array of services to be educational in nature and have found a broad variety of activities offered by educational institutions to advance their educational objectives. (pp. 18-25)

         3. The second portion of the third prong of the charitable immunity test focuses on whether the plaintiff was benefitting from the institution's educational works when he or she was injured. Courts will typically find Ryan's third prong met if the plaintiff's presence was clearly incident to accomplishment of the defendant's charitable purposes. Courts also consider, but are not bound by, the purposes set forth in the organization's certificate of incorporation. Otherwise, every non-profit corporation could unilaterally insulate itself from tort liability merely by setting forth a list of beneficiaries sufficiently broad to include all possible claimants. And charitable immunity can still apply even where the person has paid for the services rendered by the charity. (pp. 25-27)

         4. Just as the Appellate Division in Lax found the Chamber Symphony to be "educational" and "charitable" under the Charitable Immunity Act, the McBride concert is afforded similar status. It served the University's stated goals of presenting concerts open to the public to advance the cause of education, and courts should not be in the business of deciding what music constitutes "educational" music and what does not. Furthermore, the Court agrees with the majority that Monmouth University's decision to rent out the MAC to host the Martina McBride concert did not result in the loss of the University's charitable immunity. If hiring third-party professionals triggers the loss of an entity's immunity status, non-profits in turn will be dissuaded from presenting religious, charitable, or educational events, which is contrary to the Legislature's intent. The Court's decision is not at all based on whether the University here made a profit or lost money on the Martina McBride concert. The Legislature could have set up the Charitable Immunity Act to turn on such issues, but it did not. Finally, Green was a beneficiary under the language of the Charitable Immunity Act. (pp. 27-30)

         AFFIRMED.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, PATTERSON, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE FERNANDEZ-VINA'S opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN did not participate.

          OPINION

          FERNANDEZ-VINA JUSTICE.

         Plaintiff Frances Green brought suit against Monmouth University for injuries she allegedly sustained while attending a Martina McBride concert that was held in a University facility but was open to the public. In this appeal, we consider whether the University is immune from Green's suit pursuant to the Charitable Immunity Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11.

         Under the circumstances of this case, the answer to that question hinges on whether, in hosting the concert, the University was engaged in performing the educational objectives it was organized to promote and whether Green was "a direct recipient of those good works" when she attended the concert. See Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 175 N.J. 333, 350 (2003).

         The trial court answered both of those questions in the affirmative and granted summary judgment in favor of the University. A majority of the Appellate Division panel agreed, relying on the liberal construction of the Charitable Immunity Act and the institutional goals set forth in the University's certificate of incorporation. The dissenting judge determined summary judgment on the basis of immunity to be inappropriate in light of the income the University derived from the concert and the disputed question of whether McBride's concert was an "artistic performance" that served the University's educational goals.

         Upon review, we agree with the Appellate Division majority that Monmouth University's decision to host a musical concert open to the public -- an activity explicitly provided for under the "purposes" section of the University's certificate of incorporation -- served its educational goal. We reach that conclusion without regard to the performer, the genre, or the program of the concert. We decline to engage in subjective philosophical questions of whether all music is art or whether all art is educational. We also agree with the majority that, although Green was not a Monmouth University student, she was a beneficiary of its educational purpose under the language of the Charitable Immunity Act when she was injured. Monmouth University is therefore immune from Green's claims, and we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.

         I.

         A.

         Defendant Monmouth University is a non-profit educational institution located in West Long Branch. In its certificate of incorporation, the University states that its "purposes" include:

To establish, maintain, and conduct an institution of learning for the purpose of promoting education . . . for the instruction of students in the various branches of technological, professional, vocational, and general cultural education.....
To provide for the holding of meetings and events open to the public, including classes, conferences, lectures, forums, exhibitions, conventions, plays, motion pictures, concerts, and athletic contests, all calculated, directly or indirectly, to advance the cause of education and wholesome recreation.
[(emphases added).]

         Plaintiff Frances Green is a resident of Long Branch in Monmouth County. On December 9, 2012, Green attended a concert at the University's Multipurpose Activity Center (MAC). The event license agreement described the concert as radio station "Thunder 106's Winter Thunderland: Martina McBride: The Joy of Christmas Tour." Martina McBride is a country music performer, and the concert at Monmouth University was one of sixteen concerts that McBride performed as a part of a tour. The other fifteen concerts were at venues located outside of New Jersey.

         By way of background, the University entered into an exclusive booking agreement for the 2010-2012 period with Concerts East, Inc., which agreed to act as the University's "agent for live music entertainment services of artistic performers on behalf of [the University]" for shows at the MAC. Concerts East had the exclusive rights to book concerts for the University and was required to "adhere to the University's ...


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