Legal Matters: Church volunteers generally protected by charitable immunity

"Do the rules apply to volunteers in churches?" a reader asked after a recent column on legal liability for volunteers who are injured or who injure others while working with nonprofit organizations.

Short answer: a qualified yes.


If the church meets the Internal Revenue Service definition of a charitable organization, the rules apply.

In Maryland, the charitable immunity rule protects charitable organizations from being sued by individuals who suffer harm or injury caused by a volunteer. The rule defines a charitable organization as a tax-exempt organization that operates exclusively for charitable, scientific, educational, religious or other purposes recognized by the IRS.

If a church is recognized by the IRS, the charitable immunity rule applies. To be recognized, the church must meet the requirements of section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. If it does that, it will be considered automatically tax-exempt and will not have to apply for exempt status from the IRS.

The IRS relies on the generally accepted legal definition of a charitable organization, that is, one that provides relief for the poor, distressed or underprivileged; advances religion, education or science; erects or maintains public buildings, monuments or works; lessens the burdens of government; lessens neighborhood tensions; eliminates prejudice or discrimination; defends human and civil rights codified in law, or combats community deterioration or juvenile delinquency.

To meet the requirements of section 501(c)(3), the organization must operate exclusively for one or more of the purposes listed in the definition, according to the IRS website

Groups that attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of their activities, or support or oppose political candidates, cannot qualify for the status.

Churches also catch a break from the IRS because they are not required to file annual returns or notices with the agency.

Someone who is injured by a person acting on behalf of a church may try to sue on the grounds that the church representative was not legally a volunteer. If the church representative who caused the injury meets the criteria established by the Maryland Volunteer Service Act, which are, "officers, trustees, and any person who provides service for an organization or association," the act states the volunteer is not liable for personal actions or the actions of others at the organization beyond the limit of personal insurance.

The language suggests that if a volunteer has personal insurance, and injures someone in his capacity as a volunteer, the injury victim may be able to receive compensation from the volunteer's personal insurance. However, the volunteer service act lists exceptions to possible compensation from personal insurance. Exceptions include physicians serving as team doctors, certified technicians providing emergency aid, health care providers volunteering for charitable organizations, community recreation volunteers, and Insect Sting Emergency Treatment Program volunteers who give emergency aid.

A national or out-of-state organization that seeks charitable contributions in Maryland but may be "an area, branch, chapter, office, or similar affiliate … that is organized or has its principal place of business outside the state" qualifies as a charitable organization under state law.

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.