N.J. Court Limits Nonprofits’ Shield in Sex Abuse Suits

A New Jersey law protecting nonprofit organizations from negligence lawsuits does not apply to all sex abuse cases, the state Supreme Court ruled.

The ruling allows John W. Hardwicke Jr. to continue his lawsuit against the American Boychoir School in Princeton. Hardwicke alleges that he was repeatedly molested by the school’s music director and three other employees from 1969-1971, when he attended the school.

In its 5-1 ruling, the court reasoned that the state’s Charitable Immunity Act protects charities from negligence claims only, not from claims that are based on “willful, wanton or grossly negligent conduct.”

Hardwicke fought 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 school argued that it is neither a “natural person” nor an individual standing in for a parent, two standards indicating legal liability. Therefore, the school said it should be immune from negligence suits such as Hardwicke’s.

A state appeals court in March sided with Hardwicke, ruling that his case could move forward. The Supreme Court decision allows the case to go to trial.

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.