Choir School in New Jersey Loses Immunity in Sex Abuse Case
The Associated Press, carried in New York Times
March 28, 2004
TRENTON, March 27 (AP) - A New Jersey appeals court ruled on Friday that a man who sued the American Boychoir School in Princeton could continue his lawsuit against the school.
The man, John W. Hardwicke Jr., appealed a New Jersey Superior Court judge's ruling last year that the state's Charitable Immunity Act protected the school from being sued for acts that injured children "no matter how flagrant that conduct may be." The law says that nonprofit groups set up exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes are immune from liability when someone suffers damages resulting from an employee's negligence.
But a three-judge panel in the Appellate Division ruled that the immunity act did not apply to lawsuits brought under a newer law that expanded the rights of victims of childhood sexual abuse.
That law allows the victims to sue attackers and institutions that had knowingly employed them.
Mr. Hardwicke, who now lives in Maryland, attended the school from 1969 to 1971 and said in his lawsuit that he was molested by the former choirmaster, Donald Hanson, in the early 1970's.
The lawsuit claims that the school "ignored and even accepted" the repeated abuse.
"It really does a lot to restore my faith in what I thought was a bankrupt legal system in New Jersey," Mr. Hardwicke said after the ruling.
Each of the three judges wrote a separate opinion in the ruling.
Appellate Division Judge Edith K. Payne wrote that protecting the school from a sex abuse lawsuit could make New Jersey "a haven for sex abuse by charitable institutions acting within the state."
Judge Edwin H. Stern agreed that Mr. Hardwicke deserved his day in court.
Judge David Landau dissented, arguing that the immunity law is used to ensure that money donated to charities is not funneled to pay for lawsuits. He said the ruling could expose all nonprofit organizations in the state to such lawsuits.
The Superior Court's ruling last year also covered a lawsuit brought by another man, Douglas Palmatier, who claimed he had been raped by Mr. Hanson in the 1970's. The panel said that a settlement had been reached between the Boychoir School and Mr. Palmatier, so his appeal was dismissed.
Mr. Hanson left the school in 1982 after admitting that he molested students.