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Volunteers: Help or Hindrance?

Volunteers are a wonderful resource. At the Maricopa Community Colleges, we rely on all types of volunteers, and for little to no reward other than the satisfaction of contributing, volunteers will dig in and perform tasks that employees cannot perform.  Yet, despite the inestimable value of volunteers, the long-term implications of their work can involve volunteer liability. Both the professional (i.e., medical, legal, etc.) and the lay person who volunteer their services may be subjecting themselves and Maricopa to liability through their volunteer activities.

When a person serves as a volunteer for Maricopa, he or she is protected by the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 (the “Act”), a federal law that generally limits a volunteer’s liability as long as he or she is acting within the scope of his or her duties for Maricopa. Therefore, all Maricopa volunteers are shielded from personal liability for their volunteer actions that are within the scope of their responsibilities for Maricopa, except as noted below:

Under the Act, a volunteer who performs services for Maricopa can be held liable for the harm caused by his/her act or omission if:

  • The volunteer was acting outside the scope of the volunteer’s responsibilities to Maricopa with respect to the act or omission;
  • The harm was 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; or
  • The harm was caused by the volunteer operating a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or other vehicles for which the State requires the operator or owner of the vehicle, aircraft, or vessel to possess an operator’s license or maintain insurance.

In addition to the criteria listed above, if the activities or practice in which the harm occurred requires, or if it is otherwise appropriate, that the volunteer be properly licensed, certified, or authorized by the appropriate authorities for such activities or practice, the limitation on the volunteer’s liability does not apply.

The Act does not limit Maricopa’s own exposure to liability to third parties for the acts or omissions of a volunteer acting within the scope of his/her responsibilities for Maricopa.

In addition to the limitation of liability provided by the Act, Maricopa provides liability and workers’ compensation insurance coverages for volunteers. Our liability policy provides legal defense and indemnification for volunteers acting within the scope of volunteer duties for Maricopa. The Governing Board recently adopted a policy that now provides workers’ compensation benefits for volunteers acting within the scope of their their volunteer activities.  Volunteers may also have separate protection provided by their own individual homeowners, automobile, and/or umbrella liability insurance policies.

The following items are designed to help you evaluate your volunteer program and to limit volunteers’ and Maricopa’s liability:

1.  Become acquainted with the volunteer program at your college.  Who is responsible for managing your college’s volunteer program?  Is there more than one program, department, or location handling it?  Is there a college process for dealing with volunteers?

2.  Make sure volunteers understand and follow the rules.  Spell out policies and procedures to the volunteers.  Well-meaning volunteers can be oblivious to the potential for liability.  Also, advise them of the potential for personal liability. 

3.  Explain to volunteers how important their actions are and why following procedures is important.

4.  Review screening policies.  Do you screen volunteers?  Who does it?  Is it applied uniformly to all potential volunteers?  Screen and/or train volunteers in what they are qualified to do. 

5.  Review procedures for placing and training volunteers. Use volunteer position applications to ascertain volunteer background, skills, experience, and risk factors.  Is care being taken to match volunteers with assignments they are competent to perform?  Office workers may not be the best volunteers to lift furniture for a scholarship fundraising activity.

6.  Use volunteer service statements to clearly specify volunteer roles and responsibilities. Our “Volunteer Service Statement & Agreement” can be found at the Risk Management website under “Miscellaneous Forms.”

7.  Develop a system for providing information to volunteers.

8.  Keep all volunteer records. Documentation is a defense in the event a claim is brought against Maricopa and/or the volunteer.

9. Annually review your volunteer program. Review your volunteer screening processes, training programs, and documentation processes.

Just because there is a possibility of volunteer liability doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t utilize their services. With advance planning and training, we can ensure that volunteers will help, not hinder our organization. 

Published in the Winter 2006 Edition of In Brief

Questions or comments?
Contact Lee Combs @ 480.731.8878

Maricopa Community Colleges
Office of General Counsel
2411 West 14th Street
Tempe, AZ 85281-6942
480.731.8877 / 480.731.8890 fax

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