ELVINA POLLARD v. JERUSALEM BAPTIST CHURCH

Annotate this Case

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE

APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY

APPELLATE DIVISION

DOCKET NO. A-0

ELVINA POLLARD and

CLIFFORD POLLARD,

Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

JERUSALEM BAPTIST CHURCH,

Defendant-Respondent.

________________________________________________________________

December 8, 2014

 

Argued September 17, 2014 Decided

Before Judges Maven and Carroll.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-3149-11.

Christopher A. DeAngelo argued the cause for appellants (Pellettieri, Rabstein and Altman, attorneys; Mr. DeAngelo, of counsel and on the briefs).

Ryan C. Buchanan argued the cause for respondent (Margolis Edelstein, attorneys; Jeanine D. Clark, on the brief).

PER CURIAM

Plaintiff Elvina Pollard sustained injuries when she fell on the basement staircase in defendant Jerusalem Baptist Church (Church). At the time of her injuries, the Church was hosting an ushers' council meeting. Plaintiff and her spouse, Clifford Pollard,1 appeal from an order granting summary judgment, based upon the Charitable Immunity Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11, in favor of the Church. We conclude that because plaintiff was a beneficiary of the Church's works at the time of the accident, the Church is protected by charitable immunity. We thus affirm.

I.

The facts of the case are undisputed. The Church is a non-profit entity organized exclusively for charitable and religious purposes within the meaning of the Act. On the evening of January 4, 2010, the Church hosted an ushers' council meeting, a periodic gathering of ushers and other officers of member churches. The meeting qualifies as a religious activity.

At her deposition, plaintiff testified that she was not attending the meeting, but drove her mother to the Church at approximately 6:00 p.m. She then left to visit a cousin and returned to the Church at approximately 6:40 p.m. Plaintiff knew the meeting would continue until "at least 8:00 p.m." but she returned early "to be with her [mother]." Plaintiff slipped and fell as she descended the staircase to the basement where the meeting was being held.

The Church moved for summary judgment claiming that it was promoting its religious objectives and purposes at the time of plaintiff's injury. By virtue of being present on the premises during that time, plaintiff became a beneficiary of its charitable works. The Church also posited that in present times, adult children care for their parents as they do their children, taking them to activities and appointments. Here, the Church argues plaintiff falls within the broad category of persons who are deemed beneficiaries subject to the Act when they accompany their child or others to an immunized premises or activity, even if they do not intend to participate in the activity.

Although plaintiff concedes the ushers' meeting was a charitable event covered by the Act, she contends that because she was present only to accompany her mother, the Act does not bar her recovery. She was not there to attend the meeting or to derive a benefit from it.

Prior to hearing argument, the motion judge provided a summary of the facts and the applicable law. Quoting Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 175 N.J. 333, 350 (2003), she recognized that

the established test for determining whether a party is a beneficiary of the works of a charity has two prongs. The first is that the institution pleading the immunity, at the time in question, "was engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance." Anasiewicz v. Sacred Heart Church, 74 N.J. Super. 532, 536 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 38 N.J. 305[ ] (1962). The second is that the injured party must have been a direct recipient of those good works. DeVries v. Habitat for Humanity, 290 N.J. Super. 479, 487-88[ ] (App. Div. 1996), aff'd o.b., 147 N.J. 619 [] (1997).

At the conclusion of oral argument, the judge commented

here, you have the plaintiff who said, ["]I want to spend time with my mom["] and she went to the meeting. Now she didn't go to the meeting as an usher, I'll give you that. She didn't go to the meeting necessarily to benefit in any way other than maybe to spend time with her mom, but it's akin to these other cases that I cited.

The judge granted summary judgment, holding as a matter of law, that plaintiff was a beneficiary of the Church's charitable purposes.

On appeal, plaintiff reasserts her argument that the Church was not entitled to charitable immunity status because she was not a member of the ushers' council and did not participate in its meeting. Nor was she a member of the Church. We are not persuaded.

The relevant statutory provisions from the Act provide

No non[-]profit 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 non[-]profit 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).]

. . . .

This [A]ct shall be deemed to be remedial and shall be liberally construed so as to afford immunity to the said corporations, societies and associations from liability as provided herein in furtherance of the public policy for the protection of non[-]profit corporations, societies and associations organized for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes.

[N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10.]

The statutory elements required to support a claim of charitable immunity are: (1) the entity was formed for non-profit 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).

Plaintiff's dispute focuses solely on whether she is a beneficiary of the Church's religious or charitable work. The "beneficiary" requirement consists of two considerations: (1) whether the entity seeking immunity "'engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance'" at the time the injury occurred, and (2) whether the injured party was "a direct recipient of those good works." Ryan, supra, 175 N.J. at 350 (quoting Anasiewicz, supra, 74 N.J. Super. at 536). 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 v. DeMarco, 421 N.J. Super. 501, 508 (App. Div. 2011), certif. denied, 209 N.J. 99 (2012). "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. Ibid. (quoting Anasiewicz, supra, 74 N.J. Super. at 536). Broadly interpreted, the Court has held that a plaintiff's individual motivation is not relevant to whether he or she was a "direct recipient" of the charity. Ryan, supra, 175 N.J. at 350.

Though we recognize the statute literally provides that 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-7(a), we have applied the Act liberally in accord with the remedial nature of the legislation. In Anasiewicz, we rejected the plaintiff's argument that because she was merely "a spectator" at the wedding she attended in the defendant church, she was not a "beneficiary" of the church's charitable "works." Anasiewicz, supra, 74 N.J. Super. at 536.

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, 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. We concluded 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 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 church activities, 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, even though "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.

More recently in Loder v. St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church, 295 N.J. Super. 297, 303-04 (App. Div. 1996), we affirmed the trial judge's refusal to accept the plaintiff's argument that because he was not Greek, and not a member of the Greek Orthodox faith, the church was not entitled to the defense of charitable immunity for injuries the plaintiff sustained while attending a festival held at the church. Ibid. As we observed in Loder, "beneficiary status does not depend upon a showing that the claimant personally received a benefit from the works of the charity" because the test is "whether the institution pleading the immunity . . . was engaged in the performance of the charitable objectives it was organized to advance." Id. at 303 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

In this appeal, the facts viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff reveal she was present at the Church to spendtime withher motherat theushers' meetingbefore driving her home. Underprevailing decisionallaw, plaintiff'spresence on the premises while the meeting was underway is sufficient to bestow beneficiary status upon her. Plaintiff's presence was "clearly incident to accomplishment of" her own objectives, namely, ensuring her mother could participate in the ushers' council meeting while spending time with her mother. See Gray, supra, 217 N.J. Super. at 495. Since the meeting had not concluded at the time of plaintiff's fall, the Church was engaged in its activity at the time of plaintiff's accident. Consequently, the Church is therefore immune from liability.

Plaintiff's argument that she did not benefit from the activity as required by the Act, because she was injured before she actually reached the meeting room lacks merit. As the cases demonstrate, it is not necessary that plaintiff actually receive a benefit.

Applying the liberal view of charitable immunity expressed in Loder, Gray, and Ryan, we conclude the grant of summary judgment to the Church is appropriate. There are no genuine issues of material fact sufficient to require submission to a fact-finder, the disagreements being "so one-sided" that the Church must prevail as a matter of law. See Brill v. Guardian Life, 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 214 (1986). See also Pomeroy, supra, 142 N.J. Super. at 473; Pelaez v. Rugby Labs., Inc., 264 N.J. Super. 450, 454 (Law Div. 1998) (concluding that where there are no factual disputes, the question of whether a person is a beneficiary of charitable works is a matter of law to be decided by the trial judge).

Affirmed.


1 Clifford Pollard has asserted a per quod claim against defendant. We use the term plaintiff, however, to refer to Elvina Pollard.