Volunteer immunity is often misunderstood and can give you a false sense of security. While it is invaluable to nonprofit organizations, the immunity laws have many holes that may expose a volunteer to a personal financial loss. Volunteer immunity laws arose as a response to the liability crisis of the 1980’s. As the courts expanded interpretations of liability, insurance became more expensive and often difficult to obtain, especially for nonprofit organizations. In addition, the public developed a greater awareness of the financial implications of the liability issue. Consequently, volunteerism declined. State legislatures responded by passing volunteer immunity statutes.
Each state’s law is different. The statutes seek to balance protecting a volunteer from personal liability with providing compensation to innocent victims of a volunteer’s negligence. The laws vary as to the types of volunteers, the types of organizations and what actions are covered. Some laws apply only to directors or other types of volunteers. Also, the laws do not cover all types of volunteer organizations (charitable organizations, homeowners/condominiums’ associations, etc.). Last, each law defines the types of actions for which the volunteer is immune ranging from all actions except gross, willful or wanton misconduct to where no immunity even for simple negligence.
Aside from the constraints within the law, volunteer immunity statutes have other deficiencies. The protection is further influenced by the following:
- The law is only applicable in that state, a volunteer could be subject to action from another state with a different immunity law.
- The immunity does not apply to actions within the Federal court system such as Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Americans with Disabilities Act, and other federal statutes.
- The laws often do not apply in case of gross, willful or wanton negligence or intentional acts.
- The immunity provides a volunteer with a defense position but it does not affect the costs of the defense. A volunteer still has to defend him or herself in case of a claim or lawsuit.
- The courts may declare the law invalid or unconstitutional.
A volunteer immunity law is important since it gives some protection to a volunteer, however, the laws do not replace good risk management practices. An effective volunteer management program and Insurance are valuable risk management tools for all nonprofit organizations.