Bieker v. Community House of Moorestown

327 N.J. Super. 467, 743 A.2d 893 (App. Div. 2000)
  • Opinion Date: January 25, 2000

LIABILITY; CHARITABLE IMMUNITY—Where a property owner otherwise eligible for charitable immunity allows its property to be used for a non-qualifying purpose, it is precluded from asserting its immunity.

A group of men rented a gymnasium on a regular basis to play basketball. The facility owner had originally been formed as a non-profit corporation to rent facilities to organizations that operate exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes. Eventually, however, the facility owner adopted a policy of renting to any organization or individual willing to pay the required fee. The only distinction it maintained among users was that it charged lower rental fees to non-profit organizations than to other parties for the use of some of its facilities. However, the fee for use of the gym was the same regardless of whether the user was a non-profit entity. At the beginning of one of the basketball games, one of the player’s children wandered out of the gym onto an adjoining fire escape, slipped through the guardrail, fell approximately seven feet, and suffered a head injury. The property owner moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the injured party’s claims were barred by the Charitable Immunity Act. The lower court, relying on that doctrine, granted relief to the property owner. The Appellate Division reversed. The Act provides that non-profit corporations, societies or associations “organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes” are immune from claims from persons who suffer damage from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation, society or association. Further, the Act provides that “the buildings and places actually used for ... charitable purposes ... when so operated and maintained ... shall be deemed to be operated and maintained for a ... charitable ... purpose.” Thus, the Charitable Immunity Act, which must be liberally construed, “does not come into play until there is a determination that the institution seeking to assert the immunity is one organized for ‘religious, charitable [or] educational… purpose .’” The Court found here that this was “an unusual charitable immunity case.” The prior cases all had involved non-profit entities which themselves conducted programs that were alleged to qualify for charitable immunity. Here, the property owner did not itself operate programs. Instead, it rented to other entities or individuals which conducted a variety of programs within their facilities. The Court, assumed, without deciding, that a non-profit entity that rents facilities to other non-profit entities “organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes” would be entitled to immunity under the Charitable Immunity Act. However, the right of such an entity to claim charitable immunity is purely derivative. Where, as here, the property owner’s facilities were used for non-qualifying purposes, it is precluded from claiming immunity. The Court also found that the property did not extend any preference to non-profit entities in scheduling times for use of its facilities. Instead, it rented its facilities on a “first come, first serve” basis and a substantial portion of the property owner’s rentals were made to parties other than non-profit entities. Because the facilities were not operated and maintained “exclusively” for “charitable” purposes, it was not entitled to immunity.