Volunteer workers –what is your liability?

It’s common practice for nonprofits to use volunteers to help out at fundraising or other events that help promote your organization’s visibility and donor base. But what is your responsibility to the volunteer when they are working, without pay, for your organization? What happens if a volunteer gets injured on the job? Can they sue you?

The answer is yes. And a claim of personal injury can be for a significant amount of money. It’s important to take precautions to protect your resources. Even though you may have a liability insurance policy, you are still obligated to defend and possibly cover legal claims that arise out of an accident involving a volunteer serving your organization.

A waiver of liability is intended to prevent future legal claims, and properly drafted, the  liability waiver can bar legal claims for damages and costs for which an organization might otherwise be held responsible.

Here are some tips for creating liability waivers designed for your volunteer staff.

  1. Have a lawyer help     Courts will only uphold a liability waiver if they are drafted the right way. If a waiver isn’t written and worded correctly the waiver may not be enforced.
  2. Be broad                     The drafting scope of the waiver should be broad/general where it includes everything from personal injury, to property damage, to death.
  3. Key phrases/ideas
    • Volunteers should explicitly “release, discharge and forever hold harmless” your organization.
    • Your organization will not be held  liable for any negligence
    • If first aid is required, your organization will not be responsible for such treatment.
    • Your organization has no financial responsibility to pay any health, medical or disability payments.
  4. Do your research        Every state has different laws regarding liability waivers. In fact, in some states charitable organizations cannot be sued for accidents and injuries, often referred to as charitable immunity. However charitable immunity has not been widely adopted, and in most cases should not be relied upon as a sole defense.
  5. Be clear                       Volunteers should sign the liability waiver at orientation, and certainly before they undertake any work on behalf of the organization. Make sure the volunteer is very aware of what they are signing.  If you should find yourself in a lawsuit situation, it’s important that you’re able to demonstrate to the court that the waiver was knowingly signed by the volunteer, and without undue pressure.
  6. Don’t feel bad             Don’t feel guilty asking your volunteers to sign a liability waiver. Be honest with them and explain to them why you’re asking them to sign it. Most volunteers understand.

In addition to the liability waiver, a general comprehensive liability policy and volunteer accident insurance are good investments.  The former will protect your organization if it is ever sued for a personal injury claim, and the latter will provide reimbursement to volunteers for any uninsured medical expenses.

2 comments on “Volunteer workers –what is your liability?

  1. What if the Non profit was a Homeless Shelter, and it requested some of the homeless residents to help out the employees in the kitchen and dinning room areas doing the same works as the employed in exchange for extra and better quality food and most times a bed for the night. A volunteer walks backwards while moping and hits another homeless residents’ tray causing his coffee to spill onto him and the person is suffered with second degree burns on his abdominals.

    Is the Non profit liable for damages to the victim of thermal burns caused by the recklessness of a resident -homeless volunteer to another homeless resident?

    This is in San Francisco, California. Thank You for this site. It is very informative . I hope you can accept and answer this question for me.

    1. We apologize, but because of the specificity of your question, we consider a response would constitute provision of legal advice, which we cannot do in this context.

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