New Jersey Court Reverses $260K Award to Family of Student

December 31, 2009

Fairleigh Dickinson University does not have to pay a $260,000 award to the family of a student who died after drinking heavily and falling from a dorm window four years ago, an appeals court ruled Tuesday.

Keith Orzech, a 21-year-old junior from Sudbury, Mass., fell to his death at the Madison-Florham Park campus in 2005. His parents sued, contending the school’s alcohol policies were inadequate and not properly enforced.

In May 2008, a jury found Orzech and the school equally negligent and awarded half the estimated damages of $520,000 to his family.

The ruling Tuesday by a three-judge appellate panel rejected that conclusion. The panel determined that FDU was covered by New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act, which protects charitable, religious and educational institutions from liability if a plaintiff “is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation.”

Barry Epstein, the family’s attorney, said Orzech’s parents were disappointed in the ruling and planned to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“What the appellate division is essentially saying is if a student’s in a dormitory, a university will never be responsible for negligent conduct,” Epstein said.

An attorney for the university did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

The trial judge had denied FDU’s claim of charitable immunity and ruled that Orzech was not “a beneficiary of FDU’s educational works” at the time of his death because he had violated FDU’s alcohol policy. The judge said school security employees failed to enforce that policy by not investigating a party held in Orzech’s room on the night of his death.

Orzech was working as a residential adviser in an FDU dorm in the summer of 2005. School policy forbade gatherings in dorm rooms where alcohol was served, drinking to intoxication and games that encouraged excessive drinking.

According to testimony, Orzech became intoxicated at the party and was helped to bed between 2 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. An investigation determined that he later leaned out of his window and fell four floors to his death. He was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .166, about twice the legal limit.

The appellate panel concluded that the violation of campus alcohol policy didn’t negate the fact that living in a university-owned dormitory constituted an educational benefit.

New Jersey’s charitable immunity law has figured in numerous appeals over the years, with varying results. In a highly publicized case involving allegations of sexual abuse at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the law protects charities from simple negligence claims only, not from claims that are based on “willful, wanton or grossly negligent conduct.”

Last year, a woman injured in a fall at a church where her teenage son was a member had her lawsuit dismissed when an appellate panel ruled she was still considered a beneficiary of its mission even though she wasn’t a member.

In contrast, the judges in the FDU case cited a 1968 case in which a woman was injured when a table collapsed during a bingo game at a synagogue. In that case, judges decided that the woman was not a member of the synagogue and the games themselves “were not the charitable works for which the synagogue was organized.”

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