Can a Volunteer be sued?

Have you ever volunteered your time and energy to a project?  You may not have considered the possibility that you could be sued for anything related to this endeavor, after giving of yourself to a project for a good cause.  For example, what if you were serving food on Thanksgiving at the local soup kitchen, and spilled soup on the floor.  Suppose a patron slipped in the soup and broke his wrist.  Would you be liable for paying for the doctor bills related to this injury? Or what if you were assisting in building a home with Habitat for Humanity, and shot another volunteer with a nail gun?  Would you be liable for the doctor bills associated with this injury? The answer is probably no, unless you did either of these things on purpose or through gross negligence, or were not acting within the scope of your responsibilities for the volunteer organization.

Fortunately for volunteers, the law provides protection on both the federal and state level.  Under federal law, the Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) of 1997, states that a volunteer of a nonprofit organization is protected from liability for harm caused by acts or omissions on behalf of the entity if:

  1. The volunteer is acting within the scope of his or her responsibilities for the entity,
  2. The volunteer was properly licensed, certified or authorized “if appropriate or required”,
  3. The volunteer did not cause harm by “willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed”, and
  4. The volunteer was not operating a motor vehicle.

Under the VPA, a volunteer is not protected for the following:

  1. Committing crimes of violence, international terrorism, or hate crimes under federal law,
  2. Committing sexual offenses or conduct committed under the influence as determined by state law,
  3. Civil rights violations under federal or state law,
  4. From a lawsuit by the entity

In addition to the Federal Law, Texas law also provides protection from liability to volunteers.  The Texas Charitable Immunity and Liability Act of 1987 provides immunity to volunteers of a charitable organization for any act resulting in death, damage or injury, if the volunteer was acting in the course and the scope of his or her duties.  This Texas law looks a lot like the Federal version, which provides this immunity unless the volunteer acted with willful negligence or with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others; and there is no immunity for acts or omissions arising from the operation of a motor-driven vehicle.

What does all this mean?  That you are protected while you are acting on behalf of the organization, unless you commit a crime or other offense mentioned above.  The law is created to protect those doing altruistic deeds, but not to shield people who commit offenses.  It is in the best interest of the public to have volunteers, and to encourage public and private community involvement, but that has to be balanced with protecting the public and the organization as well.

Moral of the Story:  Go forth and volunteer, but stay within the guidelines set out for you by the leaders of the project.  If you have any concerns, talk to the leaders; ask questions about the scope of your responsibilities and your involvement in the project, stay within the guidelines, and be careful!