One of the most rewarding experiences in life can be to serve as a volunteer. Each and every day volunteers make make a difference in our society by contributing their time, energy, and skills to the community. Whether it be through local recreational programs or professional volunteering services (such as a pro bono doctor or lawyer), volunteer work is highly regarded and should always be appreciated.  

However, an increasing number of individuals are becoming reluctant to participate in a volunteer capacity out of a fear of potential liability from those they seek to help. This despite the fact that lawsuits against volunteers are a rare occurrence. In response, the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 was passed to encourage volunteerism by establishing a comprehensive and consistent approach to volunteer legal immunity.  

What is the Volunteer Protection Act?

In general, the Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) provides volunteers of nonprofit organizations immunity from civil lawsuits from someone who believes that they have been hurt by the volunteer. The Act was designed to extend traditional notions of charitable immunity, sovereign immunity, and Good Samaritan laws found at the state levels to the federal level.  

Specifically, the Volunteer Protection Act provides certain protections from liability abuses related to volunteers serving nonprofit organizations and governmental entities. The VPA applies only to individuals, and not to the organization for which you volunteer.  

Does the Volunteer Protection Act Apply to Me?

The Volunteer Protection Act applies to individuals working at any nonprofit organization that is organized for a public benefit.  In order to receive the protection of the Act, you must meet the following five requirements:

  • You must be a volunteer within the meaning of the Act. You must not receive compensation for your services (other than reasonable reimbursement of expenses incurred), except that if you are an officer or director, you may receive compensation to a limit of $500 per year;
  • The activity giving rise to the claim must have been in the scope of the your responsibilities as a volunteer at the time of the activity;
  • If the volunteer activity requires such, you must have the proper licensing or certification;
  • The harm cannot have been caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant disregard of the rights or safety of the individual harmed; and
  • The harm was not caused by operating a motor vehicle.  If you have to have either an operator?s license or maintain insurance to operate the vehicle, and the claim arises from the operation of the vehicle, then the Act does not provide immunity.

It is important to keep in mind that the immunity is a qualified immunity. Even if you meet all of the requirements, there are certain kinds of conduct and actions for which, as a matter of policy, there is no federal immunity. Such actions include crimes of violence, acts of international terrorism, hate crimes, sexual offenses, civil rights violations, and crimes involving the use of alcohol or drugs.  

Does the Volunteer Protection Act Protect Me from All Liability?

No. The Volunteer Protection Act does not prohibit a nonprofit or governmental agency from taking appropriate civil action against you, nor does it prohibit a state agency from establishing its own conditions or exceptions to volunteer liability protection.  Potential state exceptions to the VPA may include specific state laws that require adherence to particular risk management procedures such as mandatory safety training of volunteers. Likewise, states may pass laws that make organizations liable for the acts of its volunteers to the same extent as their employees.  

The Volunteer Protection Act does not apply if a state has an express statute against volunteer immunity. A number of states have passed legislation that deals only with volunteer health care providers, while a few states make reference only to volunteers generally.  Specifically, Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York and Vermont have not passed any legislation dealing with volunteer immunity.

Should I Speak with an Attorney about Volunteer Liability?

If your volunteer activities have resulted in any form of legal action, you should speak with an experience personal injury attorney who can guide you through the your legal rights as a volunteer. An attorney can help determine if you are immune from liability under the Volunteer Protection Act or any state law in your jurisdiction. Remember, volunteer work is something you should enjoy and be proud of – not something that you should regret.