Nonprofits: How to Shield Your Volunteers from Personal Liability

VolunteerYou've put in the fundraising leg work for your nonprofit. Along the way, you've probably convinced a number of people to volunteer for your organization and cause.  Now, with money in hand and a workforce to deploy, you’re ready to apply your organizational force out in the world!

BUT WAIT! Did you know that the people volunteering for your organization could be held liable for any damage that they cause while volunteering?  You probably had this thought flash across your mind (or maybe a potential volunteer raised this concern) but because you’re working toward bettering the world and because these people are volunteering, you expect that most will be forgiving if something went wrong.  After all, shouldn't the law help out those volunteering their time to make the world a better place?  Well the answer is yes it should, and it already does. In fact, there is a federal law and a model law that most states have adopted to protect volunteers.  Washington State’s version, RCW 4.24.670, operates to protect volunteers when three requirements are met.  This post explains those three requirements, provides practical advice to meet the requirements, and mentions some of the exceptions to this liability shield.

1. Eliminating Personal Liability for your Volunteers: Three Requirements

Before RCW 4.24.670 applies to protect a volunteer from third party liability, the volunteer must meet two requirements and your organization must meet one (not to mention it must also meet the technical definition of a “nonprofit organization”[1] under the statute).  Your volunteer must show that she was (1) acting within the scope of her responsibilities for your organization; and (2) if required, up to date with all the necessary licenses, certifications, and authorizations required to perform the volunteer activities.  In addition to these two requirements of the volunteer, the third requirement is that (3) your organization must maintain public liability insurance. The amount of the insurance coverage depends on your nonprofit’s gross revenue as explained in the statute as follows:

(e) The nonprofit organization [must] carr[y] public liability insurance covering the organization's liability for harm caused to others for which it is directly or vicariously liable of not less than the following amounts:

(i) For organizations with gross revenues of less than twenty-five thousand dollars, at least fifty thousand dollars due to the bodily injury or death of one person or at least one hundred thousand dollars due to the bodily injury or death of two or more persons;

(ii) For organizations with gross revenues of twenty-five thousand dollars or more but less than one hundred thousand dollars, at least one hundred thousand dollars due to the bodily injury or death of one person or at least two hundred thousand dollars due to the bodily injury or death of two or more persons;

(iii) For organizations with gross revenues of one hundred thousand dollars or more, at least five hundred thousand dollars due to bodily injury or death.[2]

2. Exceptions and Limitations

Even when your organization and volunteers meet the above three requirements, there are two exceptions and two notable limitations to RCW 4.24.670.  The first exception is that the statute will not protect a volunteer who acts with willful and criminal intent, gross negligence, or “flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer.”[3]  In other words, the law will not shield volunteers from personal liability where they undertake malevolent or grossly negligent actions. That makes sense because society shouldn't condone or in any way encourage such activity.

Second, the statute does not protect volunteers operating a “motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or other vehicle for the state requires the operator or the owner of the vehicle, craft, or vessel to either possess an operator’s license or maintain insurance.”[4]  Again, this makes sense because we expect drivers to be liable for the damages they cause—just because a driver had volunteered to take the kids on a camping trip should not relieve them of operator liability and the

general requirement for auto insurance under state law.

Some liabilities are not covered by the statute, and these bear mention.  First, RCW 4.24.670 does not eliminate liability where the nonprofit itself seeks damages from the volunteer.  And second, nonprofit organizations are not themselves relieved from liability owed by the nonprofit to injured third parties due to actions by their volunteers.[5]

3.      Practical Application

So, practically speaking, what should you do to help protect your volunteers?  Two things:

  • Have a written agreement with your volunteers; and
  • Get general liability insurance.

I strongly recommend having a written volunteer agreement or letter for your volunteers.  Use this writing to explain what the volunteer is expected to do for your organization so that she can act within the prescribed bounds.  Additionally, this is an opportunity for your organization to ask about credentials and licensure, when appropriate. And finally, such an agreement is an opportunity to minimize other risks that volunteers pose toward your organization (for example, assuming liability for dangerous acts they bring onto themselves).

The second recommendation to secure the appropriate general liability insurance for your organization seems like a no-brainer given the requirements above, but many still hesitate to secure insurance.  Do yourself (and your volunteers!) a favor and look into general liability insurance because it will be more inexpensive than you’d expect.

In the end, the goal of RCW 4.24.670 is pretty clear.  As a society, we don’t want our litigiousness to chill volunteerism.  Especially given the reality that many people volunteering for a nonprofit organization have themselves, personally, more assets than the organization itself.  Instead, we should shield these volunteers from personal liability and shift the economic burden to insurance.

It’s not too often that I work with statute that is both straightforward in its application and clear in its underlying policy.  RCW 4.24.670 is both.  It would be a shame to see these protections go to waste.  So, if you aren't already, make sure that you are following the requirements above before you unleash your volunteers upon the world!

Upcoming Presentation: If you felt like the above blog post was helpful, then you’ll probably find the following presentation by Washington Attorneys Assisting Community Organizations (WAACO) helpful as well:

“Can we be sued?” – Liability Issues for Nonprofits

Thursday April 25th, 2013 from noon to 2:00 pm (brown bag lunch)

Presenters: Peter Smith, The Apex Law Group, LLP and John Policar, Sprague Israel Insurance

2100 Building, 2100 24th Avenue South, Seattle, WA

http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/322520

The article provided above is for general information purposes only and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. This article does not form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to contact Peter J. Smith at peter@apexlg.com



[1]  RCW 4.24.670(5)(d): “Nonprofit organization” means: (i) Any organization described in section 501(c)(3) of the internal revenue code of 1986 (26 U.S.C. Sec. 501(c)(3)) and exempt from tax under section 501(a) of the internal revenue code; (ii) any not-for-profit organization that is organized and conducted for public benefit and operated primarily for charitable, civic, educational, religious, welfare, or health purposes; or (iii) any organization described in section 501(c)(14)(A) of the internal revenue code of 1986 (26 U.S.C. Sec. 501(c)(14)(A)) and exempt from tax under section 501(a) of the internal revenue code.

[2] RCW 4.24.670(1)(e).

[3] RCW 4.24.670(1)(c).

[4] RCW 4.24.670(1)(d).

[5] The legal term for this liability is: vicarious liability.  Or if you prefer Latin: respondeat superior (“let the master answer.”)

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