Volunteers can be an incredibly important part of the workforce. They’re often able and willing to do jobs that no one else is willing to do, usually for groups that would otherwise be unable to accomplish their goals. Sometimes, volunteers make bad decisions, though, and those decisions can cause a great deal of harm. If you have a volunteer who causes an accident and is charged with a DUI, you might wonder who has to deal with the legal fallout. The answer to the question is quite complex as it depends on one of several different mitigating factors.
To begin with, we’ll need to take a look at the specific nature of your relationship with your volunteer. In most cases, the liability will fall on the business or nonprofit if the volunteer who causes an accident is acting in the role of an employee – that is, if the volunteer is under the supervision of the nonprofit or should have been trained and supervised by the organization. You can’t just let anyone volunteer to help out your organization, even if you desperately need a bit of help and almost any warm body will do. This is where a number of nonprofits fail and find themselves running afoul of lawsuits.
The good news, though, is that you aren’t liable for every volunteer who throws on a t-shirt with your organization’s logo. If the volunteer is simply trying to help out, isn’t being supervised in any capacity, and didn’t receive any type of training or direction from your business, there’s a much better chance that this individual’s actions won’t be found to operate under the auspices of your organization. This certainly isn’t an easy situation to parse, and simply arguing that a volunteer doesn’t have a close relationship with your organization probably won’t be a good way to avoid a lawsuit.
Instead of looking at this issue through the lens of a volunteer-organization relationship, you’ll want to look at the volunteer as if he or she was an employee to understand what the worst-case scenario might be. When you look at things through this lens, you’ll understand that the most important questions will concern why the volunteer was driving and whether the organization for which he or she volunteered had any control or any ability to stop him or her from doing so.
Once you get past the relationship with the business or nonprofit, you start to look at how much control is being exercised over the actions of the volunteer. The good news is that the law is very clear on this matter: a business of any sort typically only has liability for its employees or volunteers when that person is acting within the scope of his or her role or under the direction of a business. When a volunteer chooses to go off and do something outside the scope of his or her role or chooses to do something that’s specifically against the rules, the volunteer typically holds a great deal of liability.
In most cases, this does apply even if the volunteer was using company equipment. Even if the vehicle in which the DUI occurred is a company vehicle, it only matters whether the employee was driving under the direction of the company. If the volunteer was only supposed to be taking tickets, for example, and later chose to drive drunk, he or she will bear all of the responsibility on his or her own.
The DUI is the factor that makes it most likely that the volunteer will be held liable. It’s almost a certainty that the actions that led to the DUI were outside the scope of the volunteer’s duty and that any actions taken afterward will generally be the volunteer’s fault. This goes a step farther than many might think, as volunteers are typically held to even higher standards of liability when operating a motor vehicle. It is assumed that a volunteer has enough training that he or she can operate a vehicle with his or her own best judgment.
On the other hand, there is still a possibility that the organization can be found liable. If a supervisor should have known that the volunteer was drinking or was in no shape to drive and still insisted that he or she does so, at least partial liability will once again fall on the organization. Whenever the organizers tell a volunteer to do something, it’s assumed that the organization provided training or direction – taking at least a degree of culpability out of the hands of the person performing the action.
Finally, it’s best to look at protections for those in volunteer positions. In many cases, state laws do provide at least a minimal shield for liability when it comes to volunteer action. This is done to help encourage more people to help their communities and can generally be found under the umbrella of a state’s Good Samaritan Laws. While volunteers do get a certain amount of leeway and protection, it’s the illegal act performed – the driving under the influence – that is the most likely to remove that protection.
The good news for any business is that the act of drinking on the job will help to shift most of the focus from the organization to the volunteer. Remember, illegal actions are not protected under most laws and thus DUI helps to put a fair degree of culpability on the driver of the vehicle. As long as the business was not aware or should not have been aware of the fact that a drunk volunteer was driving, the business is very unlikely to be found liable. This does not, however, mean that a suit will not be brought against the organization or that the organization’s reputation won’t be damaged.
If a volunteer causes an accident and is charged with a DUI, there’s a very good chance that the driver of the vehicle will be found liable. If the driver was operating under the supervision or direction of the organization for which he or she was volunteering, that organization may be found totally or partially liable. No matter what the case, being involved in a suit like this can be incredibly damaging for a business or nonprofit. If you find yourself dealing with issues of liability that are this complex, your best choice will always be to contact an attorney and to prepare for complications going forward.