Immunities and Personal Injury Cases
Perhaps nothing in personal injury law is more vexing than immunities. Immunities protect wrongdoers from the consequences of their wrongful acts, give them little incentive to act reasonably, and leave the victims without recourse, to bear the burden of their injuries themselves without being able to obtain compensation from the person who injured them. More immunities are enacted into law every year, and the following list can only be informational rather than authoritative. Many are so new that they have not yet been interpreted by the New Jersey courts. Some of the most common immunities are:
Amusement Rides (N.J.S.A. 5:3-55) – This statute protects amusement park and amusement ride owners from liability for injuries to riders unless the accident has been reported to the owner within ninety days, regardless of the statute of limitations.
Playgrounds (N.J.S.A. 5:3-30) – This statute immunizes owners of non-commercial playgrounds from liability for accidents that happened within the bounds of the playground, regardless of how they maintain the equipment on the playground.
Horseback Riding (N.J.S.A. 5:15-1) – This statute immunizes owners of horses that are rented for horseback riding but who do not tell the rider about problems with the horse’s temperament, on the theory that riders are supposed to know their own level of skill.
Ski Resorts (N.J.S.A. 5:13-1) – If ski resorts identify slopes and trails and designate their relative difficulty, they are immune from liability to skiers, who are supposed to know their level of skill. Ski resort operators are not liable for failing to groom slopes or for “hazards normally associated with the varying conditions of snow or undercover, including skier use.” Accidents must be reported within ninety days. This statute appears to provide immunity if the ski resort knew or should have known of a natural condition that provides an unusual hazard but does nothing to alleviate it.
Roller Skating Rinks (N.J.S.A. 5:14-1) – This statute immunizes the operator of a roller skating rink from liability for collisions between skaters and objects and between skaters and each other, provided that the rink posts one floor guard for every 200 skaters and maintains the rink in good condition.
Landowners Liability Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-2) – This statute, as originally enacted in 1968, protected owners of large tracts of undeveloped property from liability to people who use their property for recreational purposes, such as hiking, climbing, horseback riding or riding snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, or dirt bikes. The owners of the property were not obligated to correct natural conditions of the property to make it safe for people who were getting the benefit of the use of the property for free. In 1991, this immunity was extended by the legislature to owners of improved property and of commercial property, assertedly to encourage the owners to allow the recreational use of such property. The 1991 amendments have not yet been construed by the courts. It is unclear how allowing property owners to maintain unsafe structures will encourage people to use their property recreationally, or why the owners should be allowed to keep artificial structures on the property in an unsafe condition.
Charitable Immunity (N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 et. seq.) – This statute protects nonprofit religious, educational, cultural and charitable organizations, their employees, officers, and trustees for liability for their negligence toward a beneficiary of those organizations. Protected organizations include the Boy Scouts, Little League, a YMCA or JCC, parochial and private schools and colleges, nonprofit theaters such as the Paper Mill Playhouse, religious institutions such as churches and synagogues, cemeteries, nonprofit drug rehabilitation centers and nonprofit nursing homes. The immunity only applies to claims by beneficiaries of such institutions, but that term has been construed to include guests at a church wedding, patrons at a theater performance, spectators at a Little League game, and parents picking their children up from parochial schools. Essentially, you engage in these activities at your own risk. Hospitals do not have absolute charitable immunity, but their liability is capped at $250,000.
Volunteer First Aid and Fireman’s Immunity (N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-12 and 13) – These statutes protect members of volunteer organizations such as first aid squads, the National Ski Patrol, and first aid and rescue services from claims by people to whom they render services, provided that the services are rendered in good faith and regardless of the degree of skill used.
EMT Immunity (N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-19) – This immunity protects volunteer emergency medical technicians who are providing training from liability toward the trainees.
Good Samaritan Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-1 et. seq.) – This statute protects anybody, including doctors and paramedics, from liability for negligent medical treatment or assistance rendered at the scene of an accident.
Sports Officials’ and Coaches Immunity (N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6) – This immunity protects volunteers working with nonprofit sports teams or county or municipal recreation departments from liability to players, participants or spectators, provided that the volunteer coach, manager or official has completed a program of sports safety courses. The wording of the statute suggests that immunity would still apply even if the official or the coach ignored the training.
Care Rendered to Prevent a Hazardous Discharge (N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-7) – This immunity protects persons rendering care, assistance or advice in the event of an environmentally hazardous discharge. Public officials and paid professionals are not protected by this immunity.
Mental Health Workers (N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-16) – This immunity protects mental health workers, including social workers and marriage counselors, who are aware of generalized threats of violence by a patient but fail to take reasonable steps to protect the victims or notify authorities. The statute does not provide immunity if the patient threatens a specific person.
Condominiums (N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-12) – This statute allows condominiums and cooperatives to include in their by-laws a provision shielding the association from liability to unit owners for injuries sustained in common areas.
Public Entities (N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et. seq.) – This comprehensive series of statutes replaces sovereign immunity and controls the liability of all New Jersey government bodies, agencies or entities, such as towns, counties, public schools, community and public colleges and universities, police departments, New Jersey Transit, public housing projects, the Turnpike and Highway Authorities, the Sports and Exhibition Authority, and the like. It does not apply to bi-state agencies, such as the Port Authority, which are governed by their own laws. Three reasons are given for these immunities. First, the idea of separation of powers prevents the courts from “second-guessing” many actions and choices by coordinate branches of government that are a normal part of governing. Second, governments control large amounts of property and can affect people in an infinite number of ways, and cannot realistically be held to the same standards as private businesses. Third, government funds should be kept available for public use. The effect of many of these immunities, however, is to relieve the government from adhering to the same standards as private persons and businesses.
Most personal injury claims against public entities are affected by three primary immunities. First, the responsible government body must be informed in writing within ninety days of an accident that a claim is being made. This requirement all but reduces the statute of limitations from the usual two years to three months. Second, a plaintiff must prove that a government body had prior notice of dangerous conditions on its property and a chance to correct the condition, as the government is not required to inspect its property. Third, the plaintiff’s injuries must constitute a permanent loss of a body function that substantially impacts the plaintiff’s life, a threshold that is rarely met. Many other immunities also protect public entities.
Please note that the law is continually evolving and changes regularly. This website is not meant to be a comprehensive statement of any area of the law, but is intended only to afford some familiarity with basic terms and concepts in New Jersey. You should consult a lawyer for more detailed information. All materials on this website are the property of Drazin and Warshaw, P.C., copyright 2001, and are not to be used without written permission.