Community Volunteers Should Be Aware of Hidden Risks, Report Warns

November 29, 2011

‘Tis the season to give and many Americans are volunteering in their local charity organizations to help the needy this holiday season.

But people who volunteer their time for charity should be aware that they are exposed to certain risks not covered under volunteer immunity laws, according to a report this month from New York-based insurance research firm Advisen.

Federal and State Laws

There are federal and state volunteer immunity laws to help protect volunteers. At the state level, statutes in each state can be very different in the breadth and scope of coverage provided and all include different exceptions.

At the federal level, President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1997 the Volunteer Protection Act.

This federal law protects “volunteers for a nonprofit organization or government entity; who either (a) receive no compensation, although reasonable reimbursement of expenses incurred is allowed, or (b) do not receive anything of value in lieu of compensation in excess of $500 per year.”

The law protects nonprofit and government volunteers if:

• The volunteer was acting within the scope of his or her responsibility;

• The volunteer was properly licensed, certified or authorized to engage in the activity or practice;

• The harm was not caused by willful, criminal or reckless misconduct, gross negligence or conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer; and

• The harm was not caused by the operation of a motor vehicle, aircraft, or other vehicle for which an operator’s license or insurance is required by the state.

Law Provides ‘False Sense of Security’

But Advisen warns that the federal law can also provide a false sense of security.

For example, although volunteers are protected from claims of “negligence”, they are not protected against claims of “gross negligence.” That means if a lawsuit contains an allegation of gross negligence against a volunteer, the volunteer in question must defend against the action, and will typically incur defense costs in the process.

No Protection From Most Common Lawsuits

Furthermore, the federal law excludes protection for two of the most common types of suits filed against volunteers: employment-related claims alleging violations of federal or state civil rights laws; and claims as a result of car accidents.

The Advisen report also points out that volunteer protection statutes do not necessarily prevent a suit from being filed against a volunteer. Rather, such statutes provide a defense for the volunteer, which means that the volunteer typically will have to hire an attorney and incur defense costs.

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