Volunteer Without Fear

With the arrival of the holiday season, many of us plan to volunteer to give back to the community. There is no shortage of those in need, and countless opportunities to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate. As valuable and admirable as your volunteer efforts may be, you could be subject to liability as a volunteer.  So before you head out to serve food at a shelter, sort donated clothes, visit with a senior citizen or veteran, or help deliver gifts to children, take a moment to learn how or if you may be held liable for your volunteer activities.

Volunteers working for an organization, especially those in health care, can be subject to liability. Fortunately, both state and federal laws offer certain liability protection to volunteer professionals. On the federal level, volunteers are protected under the Volunteer Protection Act, which since 1997 has provided all volunteers for not-for-profit organizations and government entities with protection from liability for harms caused by their acts or omissions while serving as volunteers. This federal law pre-empts any conflicting state law although many states have enacted broader protections. In order for the law to apply, the volunteer must act within the scope of his or her responsibilities, be properly licensed by the state (if applicable), the harm must not be caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence or reckless conduct, and further that the harm must not be caused while the volunteer was operating a motor vehicle. It is important to note that these liability limitations apply only to the volunteer, and not the organization.

Some states have laws in place to add additional protection to volunteers, such as a charitable immunity law or a Good Samaritan law. Generally, Good Samaritan laws protect health care professionals providing care in emergency situations, while charitable immunity laws protect health care professionals who provide non-emergency care for certain charitable organizations.

Massachusetts has a law that caps the amount awarded as damages against a charitable organization, which in effect protects the assets of these charities. A cap of $20,000 applies to not-for-profits for torts (an act or omission that results in injury) committed in the course of any activity carried on to accomplish directly the charitable purposes of the organization. The charitable cap statute has been upheld in a negligence action against a hospital involving a slip and fall that occurred because of snow and ice buildup on the hospital’s parking lot. Recently, in 2013, the cap was increased from $20,000 to $100,000 for not-for-profit health care providers involving medical malpractice claims, in an effort to facilitate settlement. Massachusetts also has several volunteer protection statutes which shield liability from civil damages of a director, officer or trustee of a not-for-profit charitable organization, a volunteer serving as an elder care coordinator or counselor, a physician, nurse or veterinarian acting as a Good Samaritan providing emergency care and athletic volunteers serving a not-for-profit organization.

Volunteering during the holiday season, or any time of the year can be a very gratifying experience whether you are a professional giving your time and talent to an organization or just a generous person trying to help a particular cause. It is reassuring to know that there are protections in place at the state and federal level to shield liability of volunteers and
not-for-profit organizations. While the laws in place cannot prevent volunteers or organizations from being sued, they certainly make it more difficult for a plaintiff to prevail in recovering damages.

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