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Tonelli v. Board of Education of Township of Wyckoff

373 N.J. Super. 421, 862 A.2d 60 (App. Div. 2004)

CHARITABLE IMMUNITY—A public board of education is not entitled to immunity from tort claims under the Charitable Immunity Act.

A woman went to a local public school’s soccer field to watch her granddaughter play in a game. While walking in the school’s parking lot, she tripped on a speed bump and fell, fracturing her hip. The woman claimed that the speed bump was not noticeable, not marked with colored paint, and lacked any cautionary signs. The woman’s granddaughter was a member of a soccer club, which was a nonprofit corporation. The club derived its income from player dues, team dues, and sponsors. According to its bylaws, the club was organized to promote and instill good sportsmanship and fellowship through the principles of honesty, discipline, and fair play. The club’s objective was to teach the game of soccer and the value of the sport. The board of education had adopted a policy governing Community Use of School Facilities. The policy established user fees. It expressly prohibited use of its facilities for gain by private individuals or groups. Under those rules, board granted the club use of the soccer field. The injured woman sued the school board. The board asserted that it was immune from liability on the basis of the Charitable Immunity Act. The lower court agreed with the board and dismissed the suit.

On appeal, the woman asserted that the board was not entitled to immunity under the Act. At the time of the accident, the Act provided that nonprofit associations organized exclusively for religious, charitable or education purposes are not liable to any person who is injured from the negligence of any agent of such association, where the injured party was a beneficiary of the association. The Act was created primarily to protect the trust funds of charities from serious dissipation and to avoid the diversion of their benefactors’ contributions from the purpose for which they were made. With that as the Act’s intent, the Appellate Division held that the Act was not intended to provide immunity to public entities, such as local school boards. Public school boards are not private charities that depend on charitable contributions or ones whose funds are held solely in trust for the charity. Unlike public and private colleges, a local board of education is not partially funded by the State, but is rather fully funded by public monies. Furthermore, unlike public and private colleges, a board of education renders services to which qualified citizens are entitled as a matter of legal right. Therefore, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision, holding that the board of education was not entitled to immunity under the Act.

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