Fall Accident Victim Sues Museum for Slip on Icy Steps
Museum claims immunity from suit because it’s a charity. Who wins?
A woman named Loredana suffered a fall accident on icy steps at Newark Museum. She injured her back. Loredana is an immigration attorney employed by La Casa de Don Pedro. La Casa is a nonprofit organization.
Upon arrival at work, Loredana was told to go to the museum for an educational panel discussion. The event was part of La Casa’s fortieth anniversary celebration. Loredana was told to mingle with those attending. Some of the audience were contributors to La Casa.
Newark Museum is a nonprofit association. It organized itself exclusively for charitable and cultural purposes. In order to generate income, the museum sometimes rents its facilities.
On the day of Loredana’s fall, the museum was closed to the public. The museum charged La Casa a fee for use of its facility.
Loredana sued the museum. She claimed that it was careless in maintaining its premises. The museum contended that Loredana was a direct beneficiary of its charitable endeavors. Under New Jersey law, charities generally can’t be sued by anyone injured by their negligence, if the injured person directly benefited from the charity. This is known as the doctrine of charitable immunity.
Loredana countered that her employer made her attend the event. Therefore, she was not a direct beneficiary of the museum’s charity. She also asserted that the museum was not engaged in any charitable purpose on the relevant day. The museum had rented the facility to La Casa just to generate income.
The trial judge ruled that Loredana was a beneficiary of the museum’s charity. It didn’t matter that her employer required her to be there. La Casa itself benefitted from the museum’s charitable endeavors, by using the facility.
The judge, therefore, dismissed the fall accident lawsuit. An appeal followed.
Appeals Court Reverses Fall Accident Ruling.
The appeals judges noted that the test for determining whether a party is a beneficiary of the works of a charity has two requirements. The first is that the charity be engaged in the performance of the objectives that it was organized to advance. The second is that the injured party must be a direct recipient of those good works.
As to the first requirement, the appeals court rejected Loredana’s argument that the museum was not engaged in its charitable purposes. A charity does not lose its immunity merely because it charges money for services. An exception occurs where the charity collects fees for services totally unrelated to its organizational pursuits. The judges ruled that an educational panel discussion was entirely consistent with the museum’s charitable endeavors.
But as to the second requirement, Loredana won. The judges reasoned that Loredana’s employer ordered her to report to the museum. She was thus not a direct recipient of the museum’s good works. It didn’t matter that her employer may have itself been receiving the benefits of the charity.
The appeals court therefore reinstated Loredana’s fall accident case. She will be able to pursue compensation.
I believe that the appeals judges got it right.