Non-profit organizations, charities and other service organizations are not created to make money but to do some good in the world. Volunteers who generously give their time to these organizations do so not for personal gain but to assist the organizations in their purposes. The last thing anyone involved wants is for someone to be harmed and concern over potential liability can hamper the ability of organizations to recruit volunteers.
In fact anyone in society, regardless of whether they are volunteers, people just going about their daily life or people working at their jobs could be liable if someone is harmed by what they did or did not do. In this way volunteers are not taking on any extra responsibility towards other people. However, one of the best things about volunteering – helping people – can mean that volunteers work more closely with a larger number of people.
Understanding when a volunteer or organization could be held responsible for harming someone, when special care needs to be taken and how to limit any potential liability are important for everyone involved.
Volunteers work for organizations on the basis of an agreement with the organization. This agreement may be written or verbal. Although not required having a written agreement signed by the organization and the volunteer can help prevent issues by providing both parties with a clear understanding of the responsibilities of the volunteer and the support the organization will provide. Whether a volunteer is acting within the scope of their duties can determine if the organization is responsible if something goes wrong.
Our society requires individuals to take reasonable care when going about their daily business. In law, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘duty to take reasonable care.’ Individuals must take care not to act in a way that might cause damage or injury to another. This duty of care covers many situations from having icy sidewalks to revealing confidential information.
The duty to take reasonable care can also require a person to take action to prevent harm. For example, in some situations there may be a duty to rescue someone who is under the care of the volunteer or the organization. As in all situations what that duty involves depends on what is reasonable in the situation. A volunteer, for example, would not be expected to place themselves in serious danger to rescue someone under their charge.
Volunteers have a duty of care towards the people they work with and around when volunteering. This includes people they are working with directly, other staff or volunteers and anyone who could be affected by what they do or do not do. Organizations in turn have a duty of care towards their volunteers as well as others who work for or with them and anyone who could be affected by their actions or inaction.
If a volunteer negligently harms someone the organization can also be responsible even though they did not do anything.
If a volunteer or an organization is negligent they could be sued and possibly be required to compensate the person harmed by their negligence. The fact that there is a duty of care does not mean that the person is always responsible for someone's injuries. Negligence can be shown only if the person who had a duty of care did not take reasonable care and:
For example, if a volunteer did not put the wheelchair brake on when leaving a disabled person near an incline and nothing happened this would not be negligence. On the other hand if the disabled person rolled down the hill and was injured this could amount to negligence. Similarly if an organization left a volunteer in charge of a slicing machine without any instruction and the volunteer was not injured this would not be negligence but if the volunteer was injured it could be.
If the volunteer acted criminally or was grossly negligent they are responsible for compensating a person who has been harmed even if they were acting within the scope of their authority. A person is grossly negligent if they act with reckless disregard for the safety of others.
Organizations can be held responsible for harm caused by a volunteer acting within the scope of the authority. In some cases the organization alone will be held responsible. For example, volunteer directors of a non-profit are protected by law against liability for negligence if they are acting within the scope of their authority and in good faith.
A volunteer is not acting within the scope of their authority if they engage in activities that the organization did not authorize. This could mean using a building or equipment for a different purpose or engaging in activities that are not part of the organization’s work. An agreement between the volunteer and the organization can protect both parties by making it clear what the volunteer is authorized to do.
When volunteers and/or organizations are caring for children, giving advice, involved in outdoor or adventure activities or driving people extra care must be taken to avoid liability.