Court Reverses, Remands Case Involving Charitable Immunity Statute

Sep 24, 2004

The appellate division of the New Jersey Supreme Court has given new life to a plaintiff, who was injured while attending a soccer tournament. The plaintiff is claiming that the state’s charitable immunity statute is inapplicable because she was at the tournament as a “bona fide” volunteer and not as a parent, watching her two children participate in the tournament.
The latter distinction is critical since if she was found to be at the tournament primarily as a parent it would trigger the statute, protecting the tournament organizers. An examination of the facts around that question “precludes summary judgment,” held the court, which reverse an earlier ruling and remanded the case.
The defendant in the case, the Timber Birch-Broadmoore Athletic Association (TBAA), was hosting a three-day soccer tournament in August 2000, at which it allowed a number of vendors to sell various items from hot dogs to T-shirts.
Even though her daughter and son played on different teams during the tournament and her husband coached their son’s team, the plaintiff claimed she attended the tournament as a volunteer. She explained in court documents that her job was to “make sure the equipment gets where it needs to go . . . . [and make] sure all the first-aid equipment was there. If anyone needed anything at the field . . . ice packs, bandages, whatever, I’d make sure they got it, make sure that game times were still the same, that nothing had been changed, make sure scores got posted properly . . . . ”
However, she also admitted that she spent most of her time watching her daughter’s and son’s teams play. In fact, on the day of the accident, the plaintiff left the playing field with her daughter. While she was walking with her daughter, she tripped and fell over a cooler at a concession stand and injured her shoulder.
The plaintiff sued. One of her arguments was that the operation of concession stands at the tournament was not integral to TBAA’s non-profit “works,” and charitable immunity does not apply to injuries involving the concessionaires.
The court disagreed, finding that the concessions operated during the three-day soccer tournament were “integral to TBAA’s non-profit goals of education and promotion of sportsmanship in children.
“Whether TBAA operated the concessions itself or allowed vendors to do so for a fee is of no consequence to TBAA’s defense of charitable immunity. Lax v. Princeton University, 343 N.J. Super. 568, 571, 779 A.2d 449 (App. Div. 2001) (holding that rental of the university’s auditorium for concerts was integral to the university’s educational purposes and, therefore, subject to charitable immunity). As an integral part of the tournament, the operation of the concessions falls within TBAA’s charitable immunity.”
The appeals court, however, wrote in the instant case that if the plaintiff was a contributor to the organization, rather than a beneficiary by virtue of her volunteer activities at the tournament, then charitable immunity may not apply. Of course, the plaintiff maintained that she was not a beneficiary of TBAA, arguing that neither she nor her family were members of the association, and that she was present at the tournament as a volunteer.
“The fact that plaintiff and her family were not members of TBAA does not mean they did not benefit from TBAA’s non-profit works,” wrote the court. “Hosting the tournament was consistent with TBAA’s stated goals, and we have no difficulty concluding that a non-member can be a beneficiary of the non-profit works of an educational entity.”
Nevertheless, the court wrote that the plaintiff’s “deposition testimony” alone is not enough “to determine whether she was a bona fide volunteer or whether she merely assisted the teams because she was present with her children. Therein lies the crux of the issue.
“…(W)here an injured party is present at a charitable event principally as a bona fide volunteer, her attendance as a parent accompanying her children is ancillary to her voluntary status and she may pursue her tort claim against the non-profit organization.”
Roberts et al. v. Timber Birch-Broadmore Athletic Association et al., S.Ct.N.J. App. Div., Docket No. A-1221-03T2, 7/15/04


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