This column first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on May 29, 2018.
Dear Mr. Premack: I am recently retired and am getting involved with an organization as a volunteer. They asked me if I could use my car to collect supplies and distribute brochures around town. The group is a non-profit, but I wonder if I should tell them that driving is too big a liability. What if I’m in an accident while doing volunteer work? Do I have any protection? – A.K.
Volunteering for the benefit of the community is something that the state deems to be worthy of protection. The Texas Charitable Immunity and Liability Act was enacted years ago to encourage volunteerism. People who are worried that their volunteer actions will be repaid with a lawsuit and liability find relief in this law.
The Act protects volunteers at a non-profit agency from liability if something goes wrong – but only if the agency and volunteer meet all the legal qualifications.
Under the law, a “volunteer” is someone who works for an organization without being paid (except for expense reimbursement). Anyone who is paid, like an employee of the organization, is not a volunteer. For example, if an officer or director is paid, that person is an employee; if unpaid, that person is a volunteer.
Volunteers are legally protected and immune from civil liability for any act or omission, even if it results in someone’s death, or injury, or in property damage so long as a) the mishap occurred while the volunteer was acting in the course and scope of her duties for the organization; and b) the volunteer was acting in good faith. Good faith means honest pursuit of the activities the organization was created to provide.
The Act also covers volunteer medical services. If the volunteer is a licensed medical professional, and if the patient signs an agreement acknowledging that the medical care is being provided for free and waiving any recovery for damages if something goes wrong, then the medical volunteer is protected from liability.
Volunteers are not protected from liability if a) an injury results from a volunteer’s intentional, willful, or wantonly negligent act; or b) an injury results from an act done with conscious disregard for the safety of others.
If the mishap occurs while the volunteer is operating a motor vehicle then the volunteer is legally liable, but only up to the level covered by existing insurance. Texas law requires all vehicle operators to have liability insurance with the following limits: $30,000 for injury or death of one person, $60,000 for injury or death of two people, and $25,000 for property damage arising out of any one accident. If you are going to drive for the non-profit, you must be certain that you have at least the minimum required insurance coverage. Consequently, if there is an auto accident you may be sued and will have to invoke the protections of the Act as a defense against liability.
One warning: these protections apply only for volunteers at an agency that meets certain criteria. Most tax-exempt organizations under the Internal Revenue Code qualify (though the law does specifically exclude fraternities, sororities, and secret societies). Further, the organization itself must also have adequate liability insurance. Texas law requires the organization to carry liability insurance that covers $1,000,000 for personal injury and $100,000 for property damage. If it fails to do so, then the organization and its employees do not have immunity (but you, as a volunteer, are still immune).
Paul Premack is a Certified Elder Law Attorney with offices in San Antonio and Seattle, handling Wills and Trusts, Probate, and Business Entity issues. View past legal columns or submit free questions on legal issues via www.TexasEstateandProbate.com or www.Premack.com.