Restivo v. Church of Saint Joseph of the Palisades

A-2241-96T3, 1997 WL 800138 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1997)
  • Opinion Date: December 30, 1997

SIDEWALKS; LIABILITY—Even though it was a church renting space to a nonprofit organization for well below market rent, the building’s use constituted “commercial” use, for which the owner and tenant had sidewalk liability.

A pedestrian slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk adjacent to property owned by a church and leased to a nonprofit organization for well below market value. The church administrator testified that the rent was used solely to pay expenses, and that he did not recall ever having a surplus at the end of the year. Commercial landowners are responsible for maintaining abutting sidewalks in reasonably good condition and are liable to pedestrians injured as a result of the failure to do so, while non-commercial landowners are not subject to sidewalk liability. The trial judge found that the landlord was not liable because it was a religious organization and the tenant was not liable because it had non-commercial characteristics. On appeal, the pedestrian claimed both the church and the tenant were commercial entities.

The Appellate Division rejected the lower court’s per se rule that religious and nonprofit organizations should not be considered commercial property owners, focusing instead on the use of the land and not the nature of ownership. The Court cited a case where a church leased property to a doughnut shop and liability was imposed against church because of the use of the property. Even a non-profit religious school has been held liable because it had characteristics of a commercial enterprise. The Court also cited decisions stating that religious institutions do not enjoy absolute immunity from worldly burdens and that not all nonprofit organizations have such weak financial conditions that they could ill afford to be liable for personal injuries. The latter argument could be made for small businesses, but courts have imposed liability on them based solely on their commercial nature. The Court determined that imposing liability would not violate the Charitable Immunity Act and concluded that the church in this case used the property solely for commercial purposes regardless of the amount of rent it collected. The Court also found that the tenant/nonprofit organization was engaged in a commercial use.