Plaintiff’s Slip And Fall Lawsuit Against Church Barred By Statute . . . And The Bible

by: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

Winter is right around the corner. Unfortunately, that means snow is also just around the corner. But it also means that its time for another case about someone allegedly being injured after slipping and falling in the snow. The facts of these slip and fall cases often read like law school exam questions. I have written about several of them in the past, from the relatively straightforward (Just In Time For Summer, A New Decision On When You Are Required To Clear Snow From Your Property) to the more unique (Shortcut Across Bank Parking Lot Leads To A Slip And Fall, But No Liability For The Bank) to the even more unique (New Jersey Court Answers The Burning Question: Can I Sue The Owner Of An Abandoned Church If I Slip And Fall On The Sidewalk Outside The Church?). A recent decision from the Appellate Division, Castellano v. Garrett Enterprises, LLC, is the latest in this long line of interesting slip and fall cases.

In Castellano, plaintiff was ordered to participate in a 48-hour Intoxicated Driver Resource Center program as part of the disposition of his second drunk-driving conviction. The program was held at a local church. It snowed in the days leading up to plaintiff’s attendance, including the night before. On the night of the program, while plaintiff was walking around the premises, he slipped and fell. He sued the church, among others.

The church moved for summary judgment on charitable immunity grounds. The trial court granted the motion and the Appellate Division affirmed, relying, among other things, on the Gospel according to Mark.

Under New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act, an entity is immune from liability if it was: (1) formed for nonprofit purposes; (2) was organized exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes; and (3) was promoting those purposes “at the time of the injury to plaintiff who was then a beneficiary of the charitable works.” In Castellano, Plaintiff argued that the church was not covered by the act because it was not engaged in the performance of its charitable objectives when he was injured, and he was “unconcerned in and unrelated to the benefactions” of the church. Specifically, plaintiff argued that the primary purpose of the intoxicated driver program was to incarcerate, which is something unrelated to the purposes for which the church was established.

The Appellate Division rejected plaintiff’s “inventive arguments.” It held that defendant easily satisfied the first two requirements of the Charitable Immunity Act – it was organized as a non-profit entity, exclusively for religious purposes. The third requirement posed two questions: (1) whether defendant was engaged in the performance of its charitable objectives when plaintiff was injured; and (2) whether plaintiff was a beneficiary of those good works. The court noted that it was required to view these questions broadly, with an eye towards finding immunity, because the Charitable Immunity Act itself provides that it is “deemed remedial and shall be liberally construed so as to afford immunity.”

The Appellate Division observed that the goals of the intoxicated driver program were to provide alcohol and drug education and highway safety, and perhaps evaluate a participant for further treatment. It held that these goals “fit well within the church’s broad mission.” But it went further, noting that even if the goal of the program was to incarcerate, as plaintiff argued, “ministering to the imprisoned [was] hardly inconsistent with the principles on which [the church] was founded.” In support of this proposition, the Appellate Division cited Matthew 25:36,40, which provides: “I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Either way, defendant was entitled to immunity and plaintiff’s lawsuit was properly dismissed.

It’s not every day you read a case that starts as a relatively routine slip and fall, but ends with a quote from the Bible about preaching to the imprisoned.

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