Injuries While Volunteering

Court rules volunteer cannot be sued for accident.

Church Law and Tax 1996-09-01

Charitable Immunity

Key point. Some states protect volunteers who perform services on behalf of charities from being sued by persons who are injured by the volunteers.

The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that a volunteer performing services on behalf of a charity cannot be sued as a result of injuries that occur as a result of those services. A Red Cross volunteer was driving a woman in a Red Cross vehicle to a hospital for medical services. On the way the car was involved in an accident with another vehicle and the woman passenger was injured. The woman later died, and her estate sued the volunteer for negligent driving. The volunteer defended himself by asserting that Virginia recognized the principle of charitable immunity, and that under this doctrine he could not be liable for the woman’s injuries since they occurred while he was performing charitable services. Under these circumstances, the volunteer claimed that he was “cloaked with the immunity of the charity.” A trial court agreed with the volunteer, and the estate appealed. The state supreme court agreed that the volunteer was not liable for the woman’s injuries. The court began its opinion by noting that “[t]he doctrine of charitable immunity adopted in Virginia precludes a charity’s beneficiaries from recovering damages from the charity for the negligent acts of its servants or agents if due care was exercised in the hiring and retention of those agents and servants.” The woman’s estate argued that cloaking a volunteer with charitable immunity would unfairly protect charitable activities at the expense of compensating persons who are injured by those volunteers. The court disagreed, noting that “[w]e struck this balance in favor of charitable institutions when the doctrine of charitable immunity was adopted and applied in Virginia years ago.” This choice, noted the court, was based upon the belief that “it is in the public interest to encourage charitable institutions in their good work.” The court observed:

Like any organization, a charity performs its work only through the actions of its servants and agents. Without a charity’s agents and servants, such as the volunteer here, no service could be provided to beneficiaries. Denying these servants and agents the charity’s immunity for their acts effectively would deny the charity immunity for its acts. If the charity’s servants and agents are not under the umbrella of immunity given the institution itself and they are exposed to negligence actions by the charity’s beneficiaries, the “good work” of the charity will be adversely impacted. That result is inconsistent with the Commonwealth’s policy underlying the doctrine of charitable immunity.

The court concluded that “under the doctrine of charitable immunity, a volunteer of a charity is immune from liability to the charity’s beneficiaries for negligence while the volunteer was engaged in the charity’s work.” This case will be relevant to church volunteers in Virginia, and in any other state that recognizes a similar view of charitable immunity. Moore v. Warren, 463 S.E.2d 459 (Va. 1995). [ Negligence as a Basis for Liability—Defenses]

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