Charitable Immunity Sweeps Broadly to Protect Monmouth University

Green v. Monmouth University, 237 N.J. 516 (2019). In a unanimous opinion by Justice Fernandez-Vina today, the Supreme Court resolved a case that had divided the Appellate Division, as discussed here. The question involved charitable immunity for an injury sustained at a concert by country singer Martina McBride that was held at Monmouth University’s Multipurpose Activity Center. The Appellate Division applied charitable immunity. Judge Fisher dissented.

The Supreme Court agreed with the majority. Justice Fernandez-Vina noted that the Charitable Immunity Act itself, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-10, states that the statute “shall be deemed to be remedial and shall be liberally construed so as to afford immunity to” nonprofit entities “organized for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes.”

There is a three-pronged test for charitable immunity that derives from Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 175 N.J. 333 (2003). There was no question that the University satisfied the first two prongs. The remaining prong, Justice Fernandez-Vina said, entails two questions: “The first is whether the organization pleading the immunity, at the time in question, was engaged in the performance of the . . . objectives it was organized to advance. The second is whether the injured party [was] a direct recipient of those good works” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court determined that the concert advanced the University’s educational mission. Justice Fernandez-Vina cited a number of cases in support of that conclusion. But the most persuasive authority was Lax v. Princeton University, 343 N.J. Super. 568 (App. Div. 2001), which the Appellate Division labeled “a similar case” and relied upon heavily. That case applied charitable immunity in the context of a classical music concert.

The Supreme Court declined to distinguish between classical and country music performances, agreeing with the Appellate Division majority that “courts should not be in the business of deciding what music constitutes ‘educational’ music and what does not. By accepting the premise that all music is art, regardless of whether it is country music, classical, rap, or some other type, courts can avoid going down the proverbial rabbit hole of determining what music is considered artistic, and what is not. Nor does it matter whether the music comes from a mainstream, commercially successful performer or a nonprofit group. The outcome is the same. That is why we do not agree with the dissent, which found that the McBride concert serves no educational purpose or endeavor” (citations omitted).

Justice Fernandez-Vina went on to conclude that plaintiff was a beneficiary of the University’s educational works when she attended the concert. He cited cases showing the breadth of who is a beneficiary. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the majority’s decision to uphold summary judgment for the University.

Justice Fernandez-Vina’s opinion canvasses at length the history of charitable immunity in New Jersey and the key cases in that area to date. It will be a valuable resource going forward.