The Federal Volunteer Protection Act, as well as various state immunity laws, protect volunteers and the nonprofits they work for against many liability risks. However, there are some situations in which these legal protections do not apply.
Both the volunteer and the nonprofit organization can be held liable if injury or harm occurs at the hand of a volunteer who is working outside of the scope of his or her duties or who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. An individual who violates the law or commits a violent act while serving as a volunteer risks personal liability, and a nonprofit can be held liable if found grossly negligent, engaging in either intentional or exceedingly careless actions.
Nonprofits should keep in mind that state laws, and how the courts interpret them, will vary. For example, Maryland courts have long supported a "charitable immunity rule" that protects nonprofits recognized by IRS and who do not have insurance but allows lawsuits against nonprofits with insurance to go forward.
Many nonprofits try to limit risk by requiring volunteers to sign a liability waiver. However, the strength of such documents has yet to be resolved in the courts. Donna Engle "Legal Matters: Volunteers with nonprofits can be sued depending on circumstances" www.baltimoresun.com (Oct. 6, 2019).
Commentary and Checklist
As the above article illustrates, the state and federal laws aimed at protecting volunteers and nonprofit organizations from lawsuits still leave some areas of liability exposure. It is important that nonprofits of all sizes address the liability risk those volunteers create as part of their risk management efforts.
Nonprofits can reduce their risk with continual and thorough employee and volunteer training. An initial orientation is the best way to introduce your workers to the organization's policies, behavior expectations, and the potential consequences (both to them and the organization) of violating stated policies and procedures.
Training should never be overlooked even for occasional volunteers helping with a specific event. For such events, nonprofit leaders should consider additional monitoring of volunteers' activities to avoid the risk of unintentional wrongdoing.
Here are some further suggestions that can help nonprofits limit their liability risk when managing volunteer staff: