Judge orders dismissal of woman's injury claim at NJ church

June 24, 2008 11:10:11 AM PDT
A woman injured in a fall at a church where her teenage son was a member cannot sue because she is still considered a beneficiary of its mission and as a result the church is covered by a state law protecting nonprofit organizations, an appellate panel ruled Tuesday.

The 2-0 decision reversed a trial judge's ruling and ordered that Joan Patterson's lawsuit against a Somerset County church be dismissed.

The appellate court said the Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church is protected from such a negligence case by the state's Charitable Immunity Act even though the mother was not a church member.

"In choosing to permit him to attend Liberty Corner, she benefited from the religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical education that her son was receiving," the panel decided. "Therefore, for the purposes of the act, Mrs. Patterson is a beneficiary under the language of the statute, thus making Liberty Corner immune from liability for her injuries."

A message seeking comment from Patterson lawyer Vivian Demas was not immediately returned.

The church's lawyer was on vacation and a message seeking comment from him was not immediately returned, nor was a message left with a church official.

Patterson suffered several broken wrist bones when she fell on ice in 2005 while picking up her 17-year-old son from a youth meeting. She sued, claiming the church had failed to maintain the driveway.

Patterson, a Roman Catholic, testified that the Presbyterian church was not her first choice, but "she preferred that he be involved in religious activities somewhere as opposed to nowhere," the court said.

New Jersey law bars negligence cases against nonprofit groups and religious organizations from anyone who "is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation, society or association."

Citing earlier rulings, the appellate court said that to "determine whether someone is a beneficiary for the purposes of the act, we have noted that whether a plaintiff actually benefited spiritually from a religious organization is not relevant to the determination, but rather the `controlling fact' is whether the religious organization `contributed to the preservation of moral or sociological concepts held by the community generally."'