No matter how industrious, intelligent, and capable an individual may be, success or hardship in the world is often a product of timing and fortune. Society has long recognized this fact. As a result, people continue to be generous with their time and effort, volunteering to a host of worthy charitable causes and non-profit organizations. Even the most benevolent individuals, however, are subject to the rule of law and risk the possibility of exposing themselves to legal action and liability. It is crucial, therefore, that individuals become aware of the legal protection afforded to volunteers in Maryland and the limits on that protection.
Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-407 (2013), known as the Maryland Volunteer Service Act (“MVSA”), details the legal protection afforded to Maryland volunteers. Subsection 11(i) defines a “volunteer” as “an officer, director, trustee, or other person who provides services or performs duties for an association or organization without receiving compensation.” While intuitive, whether or not a person qualifies as a volunteer under the MVSA depends upon whether the individual is receiving compensation, exclusive of “actual and necessary expenses that are incurred by a volunteer in connection with the services provided or duties performed by the volunteer.”
The MVSA extends limited immunity to volunteers in two contexts: 1) based on the acts or omissions of someone other than the volunteer her/himself (e.g. an officer, director, employee, trustee, or another volunteer of the organization for which the volunteer is volunteering) and 2) based on the acts or omissions of the volunteer. In both contexts, the volunteer is not liable for damages beyond the limits of the personal insurance held by the volunteer. Two exceptions to immunity exist in the first context. If the volunteer knew or should have known of the act or omission in question and the volunteer “authorizes, approves, or otherwise actively participates” in the act or omission; or the volunteer, with full knowledge, ratifies the act or omission following its occurrence. In the second context, a volunteer has no immunity if her/his act or omission “constitutes gross negligence, reckless, willful, or wanton misconduct, or intentionally tortious conduct.”
Similarly, both the Federal government, through its Volunteer Protection Act of 1997, 42 U.S.C.A. § 14501 et seq., and D.C., D.C. Code § 29-406.90, also provide protections to volunteers.
Helping others through volunteering is a noble cause, but volunteering should not be undertaken at the expense of exposure to personal liability. A prospective volunteer should research the availability of adequate insurance coverage and should become familiar with the MVSA (or similar provisions in one’s jurisdiction) or risk potential liability for her/his good deeds.