NJ Supreme Court Rules Monmouth University Shielded from Concert Injury Suit

n Frances Green v. Monmouth University, (A-63-17/080612) (Decided May 7, 2019), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that Monmouth University is entitled to charitable immunity in a lawsuit involving an injury suffered at a Martina McBride concert on campus in 2012. According to the Court, the “concert was promoting the University’s educational objectives and purposes at the time of Green’s injury, and as a result, Monmouth University is afforded charitable immunity.”

Monmouth University Shielded from Concert Injury Suit

Charitable Immunity

New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act provides that it “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.”

As set forth in Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 175 N.J. 333, 342 (2003), the New Jersey Supreme Court has determined that “an entity qualifies for charitable immunity when it (1) was formed for nonprofit purposes; (2) is organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes; and (3) was promoting such objectives and purposes at the time of the injury to plaintiff who was then a beneficiary of the charitable works.”

Facts of Frances Green v. Monmouth University

Plaintiff Frances Green brought suit against Monmouth University, a non-profit educational institution, for injuries she allegedly sustained while attending a Martina McBride concert that was held in a University facility but was open to the public. Monmouth University and Thoroughbred Management, Inc. (TMI), a for-profit corporation, entered into an agreement that allowed TMI to use the University’s Multipurpose Activity Center (MAC) for the McBride concert. In addition, guests were charged a “facility fee” of $3.00 per ticket, the proceeds of which were split evenly between the University and TMI. The Vice President also testified that the University did not expect to make money on its fee but instead hoped to cover its direct costs.

While attending the concert, Green was climbing a set of stairs in an area that she alleges was poorly lit. As Green stepped onto what appeared to be a solid surface, her foot slipped down to the step below, causing her to fall forward. Her face struck the back of a seat in one of the rows adjacent to the stairs. A University police officer walked to where Green fell and observed a rubber strip sticking out from the step.

Green filed a complaint against the University. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the University. Noting that the University’s resolution states that the University’s purposes include holding concerts for the general public to advance the cause of education and wholesome recreation, the court determined that the McBride concert fell “squarely within those purposes.” In addition, the court concluded that, even though Green was not a University student, she was a beneficiary of its educational purpose when she attended the concert. Accordingly, trial court held that charitable immunity applied against Green’s claim.

In a split decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision. The dissenting judge determined immunity to be inappropriate in light of the income the University derived from the concert and the disputed question of whether McBride’s concert was an “artistic performance” that served the University’s educational goals.

Green appealed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted certiorari. As the New Jersey Supreme Court highlighted, the case hinged on whether, in hosting the concert, the University was engaged in performing the educational objectives it was organized to promote and whether Green was “a direct recipient of those good works” when she attended the concert.

Court’s Decision in Frances Green v. Monmouth University

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed.“We hold that the underlying concert was promoting the University’s educational objectives and purposes at the time of Green’s injury, and as a result, Monmouth University is afforded charitable immunity,” Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina wrote.

In reaching its decision, the panel concluded 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 music, 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,” Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote. “Nor does it matter whether the music comes from a mainstream, commercially successful performer or a nonprofit group. The outcome is the same.”

The court also found that Monmouth University’s decision to rent out the MAC to host the Martina McBride concert did not result in the loss of the University’s charitable immunity. “A charitable entity should be allowed to contract with third-party for-profit entities to help facilitate the logistics of establishing and running a charitable event — like a concert — inasmuch as certain third parties undoubtedly have certain resources, contacts, and expertise that a charitable entity may not possess,” Fernandez-Vina wrote.

“If hiring third-party professionals triggers the loss of an entity’s immunity status, non-profits in turn will be dissuaded from presenting religious, charitable, or educational events, which is contrary to the Legislature’s intent,” he added.

The court also emphasized that its decision was not at all based on whether the University here made a profit or lost money on the concert. “The Legislature could have set up the Charitable Immunity Act to turn on such issues, but it did not,” Fernandez-Vina wrote.

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