The first issue to address is the status of the volunteer. Did he or she have permission from someone in authority to be on the premises? Did that authority include the right to interact with the animals? If the answer to both questions is yes, then you can proceed to the next level of questions. The answer to this question of the right to sue is not a simple yes or no. Simple questions of law can lead to long and complex answers. It all depends upon the facts and how those facts fit with the law. It also depends upon the state where the shelter is located, as not every state has the same laws.
You have to remember that anyone can file a lawsuit. The volunteer in this case could always sue if they can find a lawyer who would take their case. The volunteer would most likely file a claim first and try to work out a settlement before going to court. This discussion will focus on whether or not the volunteer has some reasonable chance of prevailing in court.
You need to know what paperwork, if any, the volunteer signed before coming to work at the shelter. For example, the papers may have stated that volunteers are not allowed to pull dogs out of their cages. If this bite occurred as a result of that behavior, then the volunteer would not be able to sue. Also, there may be certain types or breeds of dogs that are off limits to volunteers due to their propensity to bite. Only paid staff is allowed to deal with them. Again a volunteer who violated that provision would be barred from filing suit.
In general, volunteers need to follow the directions, restrictions, and guidance given them at the time they start to work. There may well be a list of potential hazards. These warnings are meant to alert volunteers to the dangers of working in an animal shelter. There are certainly other places to volunteer that involve less of a risk. A volunteer needs to be without fault to have any chance of recovering from a dog bite. Without fault means total compliance with the restrictions imposed and avoidance of risky or dangerous situations.
The most important document a volunteer would sign is a waiver form. It essentially says that a volunteer cannot sue the city run shelter. It is also known as a release because it releases the city from any liability. If signing this document is a requirement of working as a volunteer and the volunteer knowing and freely signs the waiver, they are probably barred from suing. It all depends on the wording of the waiver. It needs to state that working with dogs is a dangerous activity, and that dog bites are part of the normal course of business. The volunteer acknowledges this and willingly takes on the risk of being bitten. The waiver could also state that the volunteer should carry health insurance to pay for any injuries sustained at the shelter. The more the waiver lists the potential risks for a volunteer at an animal shelter, the better the chance of it being upheld in court. Of course, people may be reluctant to volunteer after reading the waiver form. Volunteers want to help, not take unreasonable risks.
One risk a volunteer does not waive is a city hiding dangers such as a dog that is well known to bite. Waiver forms do not give the city a license to be negligent or intentionally subject volunteers to risks. The paid workers at the shelter know that one certain dog is prone to bite. In fact, the dog has already bitten more than one person. The city would then have an obligation to warn a volunteer about this particular dog. Most volunteers would stay away from such a dog. The city would have a duty to keep that dog away from visitors and anyone else besides volunteers. The bottom line is that a volunteer can waive risks in general but not risks that are known to the city and kept hidden from the volunteers at the shelter.
One large consideration of a dog bite case is the knowledge of the owner. Anyone, including a governmental agency, that runs an animal shelter is normally considered the owner of the animals at the shelter. Just like an individual who owns a dog, the city has knowledge of each dog. Some dogs are gentle, and others are aggressive. The owner has to know the difference. Keep an aggressive dog that has at least one bite to his credit, and you have taken on the liability for future bites. As mentioned earlier, the city would have not only the duty to warn volunteers about the aggressive animal, but also to take preventive measures to protect its volunteers.
This discussion would not apply in a state that has a strict liability law concerning dog bites. That means an owner is liable even if the dog has never bitten anyone and is by nature a gentle dog. Of course, if the person who is bitten antagonizes the dog and that behavior leads to the bite, then there most likely would not be any recovery.
In summary, the answer to the question would be “no” if the volunteer signed a waiver form. There would be an exception if the city knew of a dangerous dog and did not tell the volunteer. Another exception would involve the city placing the volunteer in a highly dangerous situation without specific warning. If the city did not require volunteers sign a waiver form, then the answer is most likely “yes.” That assumes the volunteer did not provide contributory negligence. That is, their actions lead to the bite. In that case, there is no recovery.
The law is not totally clear. That is the reason there are many court cases involving dog bites and workers at animal shelters, including volunteers. Every case turns on the specific facts so there is no cut and dry answer. The most important fact is the existence of a waiver form and the exact language contained therein.