The Federal Volunteer Protection Act was an act of Congress that was passed in 1997 with the stated purpose of promoting the interests of social service program beneficiaries and taxpayers alike, while also serving to sustain the availability of social service programs, non-profit organizations, and governmental entities that depend on volunteers. The Volunteer Protection Act specifically provides certain protections from liability that may arise from volunteers serving nonprofit organizations and governmental entities.
There are numerous reasons why an individual may choose to volunteer for a non-profit organization or social service program. In fact, millions of Americans choose to volunteer their time and energy to their local community. However, many individuals had become reluctant to participate in certain volunteer positions out of a fear of potential liability from those that were seeking volunteer assistance.
Because of the benefit of volunteer work in local communities, the Volunteer Protection Act was enacted by Congress to lessen the risks associated with volunteer work. Once again, the driving force behind the Act is to encourage volunteerism by establishing certain areas of legal immunity for volunteers.
The driving force behind passing the Act was to extend the traditional notions of charitable immunity, sovereign immunity, and Good Samaritan laws that were already found at the state levels to the federal level. It is important to note that the Act does not apply to everyone, with the Act only serving to protect individual volunteers and not volunteer organizations themselves.
Does the Volunteer Protection Act Apply to Me?
Once again, the Volunteer Protection Act applies only to individuals that are working at any nonprofit organization that is organized for a public benefit. As such, in order to receive the legal protections offered by the Act, an individual must meet the following five requirements:
- The individual must be a volunteer within the meaning of the Act.
- This means that the individual must not receive compensation for their services, other than reasonable reimbursement for expenses incurred.
- One exception is granted to an officer or director of an organization, they may receive compensation to a limit of $500 per year;
- The activity giving rise to the legal claim being filed against the volunteer must have been in the scope of the volunteer’s responsibilities as a volunteer at the time the harmful activity occurred.
- This means that if an individual acts outside the scope of their volunteer position, they will still be open to civil liability;
- If the volunteer activity requires certain certifications, then the individual for that organization must have the proper licensing or certification necessary to perform the volunteer work.
- For example, volunteer firefighters must have certain certifications to perform the volunteer work they provide to the community;
- The alleged harm that was suffered by the plaintiff (i.e. the party that is alleging the volunteer caused them damages) cannot have been caused by the volunteer’s willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant disregard of the rights or safety of the plaintiff; and
- The harm cannot be the result of the volunteer operating a motor vehicle.
- This is a carve out of the Volunteer Protection Act as a person who is operating a motor vehicle should maintain a license and insurance to operate said vehicle, and as such the Act does not provide that person immunity from claims arising out of a failure to properly follow the rules of the road.
It is important to also keep in mind that the immunity granted by the Act is a qualified immunity. This means that even if a person meets all of the requirements to be extended legal protection, there are certain kinds of conduct and actions for which there is no federal immunity. For example, crimes of violence, acts of international terrorism, hate crimes, criminal offenses of a sexual nature, civil rights violations, and any crimes involving the use of alcohol or drugs are not granted federal liability protection.
In general, the Act mainly protects volunteers from alleged economic harms suffered by others that may arise from their service as a volunteer. For example, in an injury liability situation, where a volunteer has allegedly harmed the person for whom their work had assisted, such as by building a home or structure that has a flaw and causes an injury, they would likely be shielded from such liability.
Does the Volunteer Protection Act Protect Me from All Liability?
In short, no. Once again, the Volunteer Protection Act does not shield an individual from any conduct for which there is no federal immunity. For instance, if the volunteer commits an act of violence, an act of international terrorism, a hate crime, an offense of a sexual nature, a civil rights violation, or any crimes involving the use of alcohol or drugs, the Act will not protect them. This means that the scope of protection granted to an individual under the Volunteer Protection Act is limited in some capacity.
Further, there are also state exceptions to the Volunteer Protection Act, which may include specific state laws that require adherence to particular risk management procedures. For example, many states require mandatory safety training of volunteers. Further, states are also free to pass laws that make organizations liable for the acts of its volunteers to the same extent as their employees.
The Volunteer Protection Act also does not apply if a state has an express statute against volunteer immunity. There are a number of states that have passed legislation that deals only with volunteer health care providers, while some states make reference only to volunteers in general. Specifically, Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York and Vermont are states that have not passed any legislation dealing with volunteer immunity.
It is important to note that the laws of a state that serve to limit volunteer liability according to one or more of the following conditions, shall not be construed as inconsistent with the Federal Volunteer Protection Act:
- Any state law that requires a nonprofit organization or governmental entity to adhere to risk management procedures, such as mandatory training of volunteers;
- Any state law that makes the non-profit organization or entity liable for the acts or omissions of its volunteers to the same extent as an employer is liable for the acts or omissions of its employees;
- Any state law that provides a limitation of liability inapplicable if the civil action was brought by an officer of a state or local government pursuant to state or local law; and/or
- Any state law that provides a limitation of liability applicable only if the nonprofit organization or governmental entity provides a financially secure source of recovery for any individuals who suffer harm as a result of actions taken by one of its volunteers on behalf of the non-profit organization or entity.
- A financially secure source of recovery may be a requirement to carry an insurance policy within specified limits.
How Can a Lawyer Help?
As can be seen there are numerous situations in which the Volunteer Protection Act may serve to provide for certain legal immunity and protections for volunteers. However, there are also numerous situations in which a volunteer may not be shielded by the Act. Further, the protections of the Act may also be further limited by state law. As such, if you have any questions regarding the Act and whether or not it will provide you protections for a certain area of volunteer work, consulting with an experienced attorney may be in your best interests.
Should I Speak with an Attorney about Volunteer Liability?
If you are a volunteer for a nonprofit organization or other volunteer organization, and your volunteer activities have resulted in any form of legal action being made against you, it is in your best interests to immediately consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you understand your legal rights as a volunteer.
Further, an attorney can also help you determine if you are immune from liability under the Federal Volunteer Protection Act or any state law that provides additional protections to volunteers in your jurisdiction. Finally, an attorney can also represent you at any in person proceeding, as necessary.