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Estate of Tonelli v. Board of Education of the Township of Wyckoff Township

2005 WL 3578119 (N.J. Supr. Ct. 2005)

CHARITABLE IMMUNITY; PUBLIC SCHOOLS—A board of education is not protected by the Charitable Immunity Act.

An elderly woman and her husband went to a public school to watch their granddaughter play soccer for a local club. The board of education allowed the club to use the field “under a policy that permits non-profit private groups to use school facilities to meet the needs of the community.” After the game, the elderly woman “tripped over a speed bump and fell, fracturing her hip. As a result of complications from her injuries, she died six weeks later.” Her husband, as administrator of his wife’s estate, sued the board “for negligently creating and maintaining the speed bump.” The board claimed exemption from liability under the Charitable Immunity Act. The lower court agreed with the board, but the Appellate Division did not. On further appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, that Court held that the “Charitable Immunity Act has no applicability to public entities supported entirely by tax dollars and providing services to which the public is entitled as of right.” The Court traced the history of the doctrine, finding that its “original rationale for immunizing charities from liability was preventing the diversion of charitable trust funds to non-charitable purposes in order to live up to the expectations of the benefactor.” In 1958, the New Jersey Supreme Court “abolished charitable immunity after finding that the doctrine no longer comported with present day concepts of right, justice and morality.” In direct response, the New Jersey Legislature “promulgated the Charitable Immunity Act, essentially reinstating the common law doctrine as it had been judicially defined by the Courts” of New Jersey prior to it having been abolished by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Thus, the Court was required to construe the Act “to the end that the status quo be preserved.” Nonetheless, “[o]nly those classes of entities that were immunized under the common law remain[ed] within the sweep of the Act.”

The board of education “maintain[ed] that it literally [fell] within the construct of a non-profit corporation, society or associations defined in the Act.” The Court disagreed, holding that the board “as an instrumentality of the State itself, [was] intrinsically distinct from the statutorily denominated entities.” It also held that even if it were to conclude that the “Board’s organizational structure [did] not clearly exclude it from the [A]ct, that would not [have been] the end of [its] inquiry.” The Court then looked at the legislative and judicial history of the Act “to determine the status of a board of education at common law.” It found that no negligence claim against a public entity ever excused the public entity under the doctrine of charitable immunity. In effect, its research revealed “that public entities were never insulated from common-law tort liability by charitable immunity.” The Court also noted that the Legislature “had occasion to revisit and amend the Act eight times,” and it never altered the “principle that public entities are outside the reach of the Act.” The Court took that to be “acquiescence” on the part of the Legislature. The Court also analyzed a prior grant of charitable immunity to a state university, pointing out that it was not governmentally operated; it was not wholly supported by public funds; and it did not provide a service to which citizens were entitled. In conclusion, the Court held that a “public school board bears none of the indica of a private charity. Its sole source of revenue is public funds. It is an instrumentality of the State that is obligated to meet the educational needs of the children. [Consequently] [a] public school board is simply not a charity within the meaning of the Charitable Immunity Act.”

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