Protection from Lawsuits for Volunteers and Charitable Organizations
Many charitable organizations in Maryland rely heavily on volunteers to carry out their missions to offer much-needed services and resources to communities. Federal and state law encourages people to volunteer by providing some protections from lawsuits, in case of accidents or negligence. This article addresses some of the questions individual volunteers and charitable organizations may have concerning lawsuits.
Can I be sued personally for my acts as a volunteer?
As a volunteer, you might worry about being sued if you do something wrong or fail to do something while volunteering. The Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) is a federal law and the Maryland Volunteer Service Act (MVSA) is a state law. Both federal and state law provide some protections. States are allowed to pass laws to give volunteers more protection, but cannot remove any of the protections in the federal law. As a Maryland volunteer, this means you are covered under both the VPA and the MVSA where it provides additional protection.
Generally, you will not be held legally responsible for any harm or injury you caused as a volunteer if you:
- Acted within the scope of your volunteer duties;
- Had the proper license or certification, if necessary for your volunteer duties (i.e., doctor or nurse); and
- Did not act in a deliberate, intentional, criminal or extremely careless way.
You will also not be legally responsible beyond the limits of any personal insurance you may have. For instance, if you injure or harm someone while driving during the course of your volunteer duties, you will only be responsible to extent of any personal car insurance coverage you may have.
However, you won’t be protected in every situation as a volunteer. For example, you will be personally liable if you:
- Commit a violent crime, hate crime, or sexual offense;
- Violate state or federal civil rights laws;
- Are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the injury;
- Knew about the harmful act or believed a harmful act was likely to occur and you approved, authorized or participated in the act; or
- Learned about the act after the fact and still approved of it.
Additionally, if you are volunteering as an officer or director of a charitable organization, you will not be protected from being sued by the Maryland Office of Attorney General if your organization deliberately violates the state’s registration requirements for charitable organizations.
Read the Law: 42 U.S.C. 14501 and following (Volunteer Protection Act)
Read the Law: MD Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings 5-407 (Maryland Volunteer Service Act)
Can a charitable organization be sued for the acts of its volunteers?
The laws discussed above only protect individual volunteers, not a charitable organization itself. Therefore, a charitable organization could still be sued by a third party for harm or injury caused by a volunteer. To protect charitable organizations, Maryland courts have developed a judge-made rule called the “charitable immunity” rule. This rule protects charitable organizations from civil lawsuits when the organization has no liability insurance coverage for the underlying harm or injury.
For the purposes of the charitable immunity rule, the term “charitable organization” means a tax exempt organization that operates exclusively for charitable, religious, scientific, educational or other purposes recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). So simply being organized as a Maryland nonstock corporation, for example, does not automatically give an organization immunity protection; the organization must also be devoted to one of the purposes outlined above. Volunteer fire, ambulance, rescue, police and other law enforcement organizations that solicit charitable contributions are also covered under the rule.
The charitable immunity rule is based on the idea that it would be unfair to make charitable organizations pay for civil damages arising from lawsuits with funds received from donors. This is because donors intend for their donations to be used to further the organization’s charitable purposes, not to pay the organization’s civil damage awards.
Read the Law: MD Code Business Regulation 6-101
There is an exception to the charitable immunity rule. If a charitable organization has liability insurance in place which covers the underlying act or injury, then it cannot assert the immunity defense at all. The rule will not prevent a charitable organization’s insurer from paying on a claim if the organization has liability insurance coverage. This means charitable organizations and their insurers will still be subject to insurance claims arising from the harm or injury caused by a volunteer or the organization itself.
Read the Law: MD Code Insurance 19-103