Legal Matters: Volunteers with nonprofits can be sued depending on circumstances

You volunteer with nonprofit organizations. You walk dogs at the Humane Society, coach a Little League team, visit shut-ins, fight fires. But legal liability issues are always crouching at the edge of good works, waiting for something to go wrong.

Lawsuits can arise in several ways: personal suits against a volunteer for something he did or failed to do that led to harm or injury; suits against a charitable organization for harm or injury caused by its volunteers; suits against a nonprofit that a volunteer injured while volunteering.


Volunteers who unintentionally cause harm or injury are generally protected by the federal Volunteer Protection Act and the Maryland Volunteer Service Act from legal responsibility for harm or injury they cause in their volunteer capacity. But to gain that protection, they must have acted within the scope of their duties, been properly certified or, if necessary, licensed to perform the duties and not have acted deliberately, intentionally, criminally or extremely carelessly.

Volunteers who commit hate crimes, sexual offenses or crimes of violence while acting as volunteers are not protected against lawsuits. Nor are they protected if they violate civil rights laws or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they injure someone.

Maryland also has a Good Samaritan law that protects individuals who try to lend help in emergency overdose situations. Someone who calls 911 during a drug overdose situation, either to help someone else or because the caller herself has overdosed, will not be arrested, charged or prosecuted for possession or use of a controlled dangerous substance or drug paraphernalia or for providing alcohol to minors.

An individual who was injured by a volunteer's actions, but cannot sue the volunteer because of protective laws, may try to reach beyond the volunteer to sue the charitable organization. Such suits may be barred by the "charitable immunity rule," developed by Maryland courts. The rule protects charitable organizations from such lawsuits if the organization does not have liability insurance coverage for the harm or injury.

What if the charity does have insurance? Then the lawsuit can go forward. The immunity rule is based on the idea that charitable organizations receive donations to be used for the organizations' works and it would be unfair if the organization had to use donated money to pay damage awards instead, according to the Peoples Law Library,

The charitable immunity rule protects tax-exempt organizations that operate exclusively for purposes recognized by the Internal Revenue Service. For example, volunteer firefighters, ambulance personnel, rescue workers and other law enforcement organizations that solicit charitable contributions are protected under the rule.

A volunteer injured while working with a charitable organization may attempt to sue the organization, claiming it was negligent.

Courts have not yet ruled on the enforceability of a waiver of liability that nonprofit organizations may require volunteers to sign. But one indication that the waiver may protect the organization is that courts have enforced waivers to bar lawsuits by individuals who were injured when they voluntarily chose to participate in activities such as drag racing or skydiving.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.