While it’s rare for a volunteer to face a lawsuit while offering services free of charge, there’s no law against filing a liability claim. And if you’re a director or officer of a volunteer organization, your risk can be as high as if you were running a for-profit corporation. No matter how you operate within the volunteer space, it’s good to be informed and prepared.
Congress volunteers to help limit your risk.
In 1997, the United States Congress passed legislation that substantially limited, and in many cases completely eliminated, the liability of individual volunteers acting on behalf of a nonprofit or governmental organization — provided they were acting within their scope of responsibilities. The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 was designed to reverse a trend of volunteer withdrawal that was having an adverse affect on communities across the country. There were, of course, exclusions for criminal misconduct and gross negligence, but the general idea was to give volunteers renewed peace of mind, and support for making the choice to make a difference.
You’ve got the skills. But do you have the coverage?
Retired professionals bring a lifetime of knowledge and skill to volunteering. But as an accomplished accountant, lawyer or health care professional, you may be a bigger target for a liability claim. In the U.S., Good Samaritan laws and volunteer protections vary from state to state. If you’re starting a volunteer organization, consult with legal and insurance professionals to ensure you’re properly covered, especially if you plan to solicit assistance from additional volunteers. As an individual volunteer, discuss legal liability with your program coordinator, particularly when volunteering in the financial, legal or health care fields. Talk about the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997, whether any activities you’ll be performing fall outside its scope, and what extra protection they offer as a result.
A healthy defense when volunteering abroad
As Butch Uejima, M.D. reports in a February 2011 article from the American Society of Anesthesiologists, “International humanitarian law (IHL) protects humanitarian workers, including health care personnel, against litigation while they are serving in an official capacity. IHL was intended to provide protection during war or natural disasters and is not explicit whether coverage will be provided for medical volunteers on elective medical missions. This has not been tested in court. We believe that most organizations are working under the premise that IHL will provide legal protection in the event a lawsuit is filed.” Since there is very little consistency in organizational coverage, your best course of action is to discuss insurance with your coordinator before volunteering.
Your organization may still be on the hook.
Many nonprofit directors and officers believe that since Good Samaritan laws provide immunity for their volunteers, their organization will be subsequently immune from liability as well. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 provides no protection for organizations. Inconsistent laws present additional challenges to organizations operating in multiple states, or internationally. Even in cases where you can prove your organization has no liability, you still must consider the effect of a costly legal defense. Make sure your organization has appropriate general liability protection for the activities your volunteers perform, plus adequate coverage for directors and officers. Talk to your agent about naming your volunteers as additionally insured on your policy. And remember, most insurance companies offer free risk management programs and strategies to further reduce your exposures. They’re as invested as you are in minimizing costly claims.
Now that you’re armed with knowledge, let’s find your next volunteer opportunity.
In no instance should the above information be considered legal advice. Please consult with your chosen legal professional to assess the legal risk associated with any activity you wish to undertake.