What Is the Volunteer Protection Act?

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The purpose of volunteer protections acts and laws similar to them in scope is to provide those individuals who serve as volunteers for different organizations a certain amount of protection in certain circumstances. Since volunteers are not paid professionals, these types of laws ensure that their civil rights are protected in the case that their actions might prove unfavorable.

The Federal Volunteer Protection Act was put into practice in June 1997 by former President Bill Clinton. The Act was passed as a means to promote volunteerism throughout the country; after all, people should be more willing to volunteer if they have some guarantee that their rights will be protected.

The letter of the Volunteer Protection Act states: “no volunteer of a nonprofit organization or governmental entity shall be liable for the harm caused by an act or omission of the volunteer on behalf of the organization or entity if–

  1. The volunteer was acting within the scope of the volunteer’s responsibilities in the nonprofit organization or government entity…,
  2. The volunteer was properly licensed, certified, or authorized by the appropriate authorities for the activities or practice in the State in which the harm occurred…,
  3. The harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer, and
  4. The harm was not caused by the volunteer operating a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or other vehicle for which the State requires the operator of the vehicle [to hold a proper license]…”

Each provision of the Act is set in place to protect the rights and liberties of a volunteer in the case of accidental harm. Following is a closer look at these four particular provisions.

Provision 1

In the structure of a nonprofit organization or government institution that enlists volunteers to complete certain jobs, these entities entrust the running of these jobs to their unpaid workers. That being said, they still expect the proper returns and work ethic to be applied to the job. For the most part, volunteers are willing to perform to a degree of these expectations, which is why they volunteered in the first place.

However, accidents and mistakes do happen, and in the case that a volunteer is the one who causes these and has possibly committed harm to someone or something, they cannot be held liable so long as they were doing their job. If a volunteer was working outside of his or her assigned capacity, the story changes.

Provision 2

This provision is straightforward enough, and states that if a volunteer was properly licensed by the State in which he or she is working when the accident or harm occurred, then they cannot be held liable. In medical, legal, and defense organizations that employ volunteers, certain licenses or credentials are often required to prove the volunteer is trained to do a certain job.

For example, if a volunteer doctor went and offered his services in an area that has been hit by recent disaster and performs a surgery on an individual, that doctor could be held liable if he or she does not have the proper licensing or certification. If he or she does, then there’s no issue. It’s as simple as that.

Provision 3

Again, accidents happen, and harm caused by an individual does not always mean that it was intentional. So long as there is no evidence that the volunteer in question was acting with criminal intent, recklessly, or negligently in their assigned position which directly led to harm – then the volunteer cannot be held liable.

In the legal world, provisions like this unfortunately have to exist so that individuals, businesses, and other organizations do not take advantage of a situation and erroneously “point the finger” at someone they have publicly labelled as a criminal. This provision exists to provide an extra layer of protection for volunteers on the basis of motive, or lack thereof.

Provision 4

Similar to Provision 2, this provision simply means that so long as the volunteer did not cause harm while operating a vehicle of some kind without a State-issued license, then the volunteer cannot be held liable. A provision like this is why it is so important for volunteers to take care when working for another entity, as there may be times when they are asked to do something that goes against their training, certification, or otherwise. To protect yourself as a volunteer, only do what you are licensed and hired to do.

Possible Weak Points of the Act

While the Volunteer Protection Act served to propel the success of nonprofit organizations across the country, it is not without its pitfalls. For example, this Act does not protect volunteers who may, in some way, infringe on federal laws even though by state standards they are protected (or vice versa). The fact of the matter is that the Volunteer Protection Act was meant as a safety net, not an outright guarantee of immunity.

This Act makes it more difficult for organizations to unjustly hold a volunteer liable, but a good lawyer can often find the perfect loophole that will make any protection benefits offered by the Volunteer Protection Act null and void. The conflict between State and Federal law is not a new one, and creates an even more complex environment through which to traverse if you are being held liable under any circumstance.

One other weakness of the Volunteer Protection Act is the fact that it does not protect volunteers from a suit or other forms of litigation that the organization they work for might demand. And in the case that the harm affected someone outside of the organization, the organization itself is not protected at all under this Act.

Final Thoughts

The Volunteer Protection Act was a good, strong step in the right direction in terms of offering some form of legal shield to volunteer workers. However, it is not a fool-proof law, and volunteers must still be careful when it comes to activities that could result in bodily harm or physical damage or in the violation of state or federal laws in any way. You have a safety net; but it is best not to poke any more holes in it.

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