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Volunteer Liability in California

Volunteers Planting TreesMany people volunteer their time, and volunteer work is essential to the existence of nonprofit organizations. Sometimes, however, those volunteers cause injuries to third parties. But volunteering is valuable, and California does not want to discourage people from volunteering. Thus, California law provides volunteers immunity from personal injury suits in some cases.

Charitable Immunity

Formerly, like other states, California used the doctrine of charitable immunity. It meant that charitable organizations could not be held liable in personal injury cases. But charitable immunity was abolished in 1951. Now, only nonprofit directors and officers, along with volunteers in a few other categories, including architects, engineers, and emergency rescue personnel, are assumed to have immunity in personal injury suits.

Nonprofit Directors and Officers

 Volunteer directors and officers of nonprofit corporations will not be personally liable for monetary damages to a third party if:

  • They were acting in good faith; and
  • The acts or omissions were within the scope of their duties. 

However, this immunity does not apply if the injury-causing actions constituted reckless, gross, or wanton negligence or intentional acts. 

Generally, any damages caused by the volunteer director or officer will be covered by the organization’s liability insurance policy. If there is or was no insurance policy, then the director or officer will not be liable as long as there were reasonable, good-faith efforts to obtain liability insurance.

Volunteers in an Emergency

 Volunteers in an emergency situation also have immunities from personal injury suits. Emergency volunteers include:

  • Volunteers registered with the Office of Emergency Services;
  • Volunteers registered with any disaster council of any political subdivision; and
  • Unregistered persons pressed into service during a state of emergency.

These volunteers will have the same immunity as do employees of the state who perform similar work.

Emergency Rescue

Public entities and emergency rescue personnel have qualified immunity in California. Emergency rescue personnel includes volunteer firefighters. They will not be liable for injuries caused by an action taken by the emergency rescue personnel, as long as emergency rescue personnel is: 

  • Acting within the scope of employment; and 
  • Providing emergency services.

This immunity does not apply if the emergency rescue personnel is acting in bad faith or with gross negligence.

Engineers and Architects

A volunteer engineer or architect who provides structural inspection at the scene of an emergency will not be liable for injuries caused by negligence, as long as the engineer or architect was acting: 

  • Without compensation;
  • At the request of a public official; and
  • In good faith.

If you have been injured by a volunteer acting on behalf of a charitable organization or emergency services provider, it can be difficult to determine who is liable for the harm you have suffered, but an experienced attorney can help. Please call the experienced San Jose personal injury attorneys at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, L.L.P. for an initial consultation.

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