What is Charitable Tort Immunity?

In Kuchera v. Jersey Shore Family Health Ctr., A-2155-12T3, 2013 WL 5566679 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 10, 2013), the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Vision Impaired held annual free eye screening events at the University Medical Center's Family Health Center (“Jersey Shore”). While attending this free screening, Kuchera slipped and fell on an oily substance and was injured and therefore sued Jersey Shore for negligence.

Jersey Shore moved for summary judgment under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 (“Chapter 7”), arguing that because they are organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes, they are entitled to immunity against tort liability from plaintiffs who are beneficiaries to the services provided by the organization.

Plaintiff opposed summary judgment arguing that Jersey Shore was only entitled to limited immunity under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8 (“Chapter 8”), which provides that associations organized exclusively for hospital purposes will be held liable for up to $250,000 in damages to a beneficiary of the association.

The Court was therefore faced with the question of whether Jersey Shore was organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes, and thus entitled to complete immunity under Chapter 7 of the Statute or whether Jersey Shore was an association that was organized exclusively for hospital purposes under Chapter 8 of the Statute and therefore could be exposed to up to $250,000 in damages.

In reaching its decision, the Court answered that question by finding Jersey Shore not to be an association organized “exclusively” for hospital purposes under Chapter 8 of the Statute because, in addition to maintaining a hospital, Jersey Shore also provided educational services and charitable services. For example, the Court noted that Jersey Shore provided educational services, such as providing training of physicians, nurses, laboratory students and radiology students. The Court explained that Jersey Shore “has a clear mission to promote the educational development of future physicians, and provides educational services through a variety of platforms… [and] students from different medical institutions come to [Jersey Shore] to fulfill their fellowship and residency requirements.” Id. at 4.

The court concluded that Jersey Shore’s organization had a charitable purpose because Jersey Shore “provides charitable clinics for people who are uninsured, underinsured, without a primary care physician and/or who lack access to regular medical care.” Id. at 4. In fact, Plaintiff was injured from a slip and fall at a free eye exam clinic, which is well within the charitable purpose to promote, improve and protect the health and welfare of the community.

Entities Organized for Mixed Purposes . Courts have recognized that institutions with “mixed purposes” are not automatically considered to be organized “exclusively for hospital purposes.” In Gould v. Theresa Grotta Ctr., a nursing home that employed a medical staff of doctors and nurses but also provided charitable and beneficial functions of a nonprofit nursing home, such as “rehabilitative technique, physical restoration and social case work services” to “enable patients to recover from acute illnesses or accident, to normal living.” 83 N.J. Super. 169, 171, 199 A.2d 74, 75 (Ch. Div. 1964) aff'd, 89 N.J. Super. 253, 214 A.2d 537 (App. Div. 1965), was entitled to Chapter 7 charitable immunity because it was a hybrid organization that provided its patrons with both hospital and charitable services and was an organization with such a mixed purpose is more properly recognized under section 7 than section 8. Id. at 175. The court found that this interpretation is consistent with the overall scheme of the Act and the legislative intent in enacting the statute. Id.

Therefore, a Plaintiff who slips and falls on property owned/controlled by an organization may be required to conduct a careful analysis of whether the organization falls under Chapter 7 of the Charitable Immunity Act in which case there can be no recovery or under Chapter 8 of the Charitable Immunity Act in which case a Plaintiff may recover up to $250,000 in damages.