Court Weakens NJ Immunity Shield For Charities
August 8, 2006
TRENTON, N.J. -- A state law protecting nonprofit organizations
from negligence lawsuits does not apply to all sex abuse cases,
the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, dealing a blow to a
music school being sued by a former student who claimed he was sexually
The high court's decision stems from sex abuse claims involving
administrators at the prestigious American Boychoir School in Princeton.
The ruling allows John W. Hardwicke Jr. to continue suing the music
school. Hardwicke alleges that he was repeatedly molested by the
school's music director and three other employees from 1969 to 1971,
when he attended the school.
The decision also said that employers can be held responsible for
claims against their employees even if workers' actions are outside
the scope of their employment, a ruling that may have far-reaching
effects for employers statewide.
Since January 2001, Hardwicke has been fighting for the right to
sue the school, contending that a state law protecting nonprofits
from negligence lawsuits doesn't apply to sex abuse cases.
"The rule before this decision had said that charities weren't
responsible for the intentional acts of their employees," said
Hardwicke attorney Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford University
Law School and himself a Boychoir School alumnus who claims he was
While the case has larger employment law implications, for Hardwicke
it was a very personal victory and motivator to continue with his
"It's like a light of justice shining from the Supreme Court
across the state of New Jersey, uncovering the dark secret the school
has been hiding for so long," Hardwicke, who now lives in Maryland,
said of the ruling.
In 2004, a state appeals court panel sided with Hardwicke, ruling
that his case could move forward, but the school appealed. The Supreme
Court's decision means his case can finally go to trial.
In its 5-1 ruling, the court reasoned that the state's Charitable
Immunity Act protects charities from simple negligence claims only,
not from claims that are based on "willful, wanton or grossly
The school had argued that the act gave it immunity from Hardwicke's
lawsuit. It also denied that it is a "natural person"
or an individual standing in for a parent -- two standards indicating
But the high court determined that the school was acting as a stand-in
parent, and as such, may be "vicariously liable" for their
"In effect, the school accepted the responsibility to nurture
these young children at a critical and vulnerable stage in their
development," Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz wrote for the
Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto dissented in part, arguing that
the act covers more than basic negligence claims. He also said that
he believed Harwicke's lawsuit has passed the statute of limitations
for civil cases.
Jay Greenblatt, the school's attorney, called the ruling "a
slippery slope" for employers.
"The school may be responsible for (the music director's)
abuse of the child even though abusing a child is outside the scope
of his employment," he said.
Attorneys for victims of clergy abuse hailed the ruling, saying
it puts a stop to charities that try to abuse the act, which was
designed to stop frivolous negligence lawsuits.
"The statute was originally designed to protect charitable
institutions from slip-and-fall lawsuits. But when your actions
are grossly negligent and intentional, you can't hide behind the
Charitable Immunity Act for that," said attorney Gregory Gianforcaro,
who has represented dozens of clergy-abuse victims in New Jersey.
"What the Supreme Court in New Jersey has done is given a
voice to victims of sexual abuse, who in the past were silenced
by charitable immunity," he said.
In January, a bill was passed by the Legislature and signed into
law by then-Gov. Richard J. Codey making New Jersey the 48th state
to allow victims of childhood sex abuse to sue churches, schools
and other nonprofits for the actions of their staff.
Hardwicke said he hopes to work with the Legislature to repeal
the statute of limitations for sex abuse victims to file civil lawsuits.
Such statutes have already been lifted for criminal prosecutions.
"My whole point for doing this was to uncover the darkness
of the sex abuse," Hardwicke said. "And the only way to
do it was to sing loud about it."
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