• The New Jersey Charitable Immunity Act: Public University Exempt from Suit Even Though Judgment would be Paid from Public Funds
  • May 5, 2003 | Authors: Walter J. Klekotka; Linda Egerter Yoder
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - Cherry Hill Office
  • On May 6, 2002, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the decision in Graber v. Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, 313 N.J. Super. 476 (App. Div.), certif. denied. 156 N.J. 409 (1998), holding that a public university is entitled to charitable immunity even though its judgments are paid from public funds and not the funds of the educational institution. This decision was made in the case of O'Connell v. Montclair State University, 171 N.J. 484, 795 A.2d 857, 2002, which found that Montclair State University had met the elements set forth in the Charitable Immunity Act ("CIA:), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to 11, regardless of its status as a public nonprofit. The Charitable Immunity Act provides immunity from suits brought by beneficiaries of an institution which is a nonprofit and organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes. In addition, the person bringing suit must have been a beneficiary of the organization's charitable works at the time of the alleged incident for charitable immunity to apply. The O'Connell case involved a full-time student who suffered a fractured elbow and ribs when he fell down a staircase in a campus amphitheater. The trial court found that Montclair State University met the elements of the CIA giving it immunity from the suit. Therefore, the court granted its motion for summary judgment. However, the Appellate Division reversed this decision finding that, even though the "plain language" requirement of the statute was met, charitable immunity did not apply. The Appellate Court supported this decision with an analysis of common law and the fact that the university's judgments are paid from public funds pursuant to the New Jersey Torts Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 59:12-3, and not from the funds of the educational institution. According to the Appellate Division, common law charitable immunity did not apply to public entities whose judgments are paid by public funds and, therefore, the present-day CIA does not apply to public organizations such as Montclair State University. In interpreting the Charitable Immunity Act, the New Jersey Supreme Court first examined the language of the statute. The Supreme Court states that where the statute is clear and unambiguous on its face, a court must infer the Legislature's intent from the statute's meaning. This process must neither rewrite the statute nor make presumptions not supported by the statute. Since the statute reads, "No nonprofit corporation...shall...be liable," the Supreme Court explains public and private non-profits receive the same protection from the statute. The Appellate Division found that the Legislature intended for charitable immunity to only apply to those organizations covered under common law. Since the language of the statute is clear, the Supreme Court does not need to consider legislative intent. However, the Supreme Court explains that courts applied charitable immunity to public organizations both at common law and through statute. Therefore, if the common law approach is used, Montclair State University qualifies for the immunity.

    The final analysis of the Supreme Court explains that, although an organization may receive protection from the Torts Claims Act, it is not excluded from raising the defense of charitable immunity. This is because the Torts Claims Act expressly provides that "any liability of a public entity established by the Act is subject to any immunity of the public entity and is subject to any defenses that would be available to the public entity if it were a private person." Since the charitable immunity defense was available when the Torts Claims Act was enacted, it is a defense that the Legislature envisioned would be raised by entities also covered by the Torts Claims Act.

    In conclusion, the New Jersey Supreme Court explains that depriving public universities of the defense of charitable immunity places their resources at risk. So, the proper analysis is not whether the Legislature ever envisioned public entities, such as state colleges, receiving protection from the CIA, but whether the entity satisfies each of the elements as set forth within the plain language of the Act.