Most horse organizations depend heavily on volunteer support. Whether it is a national breed organization, local 4-H club or trail riding group, volunteers are key to the organization’s existence and success. Yet a recent Congressional study revealed that volunteerism was steadily declining. The cause? A smattering of lawsuits against volunteers and the resulting spotlight on potential legal liability scared away many existing and potential volunteers.

Prior to 1997, the fears of being sued for actions occurring during a volunteer activity were indeed real. An injured participant could sue an organization’s negligent volunteer. Thus, the volunteer had the same duty to the participant as if they were being paid for their volunteer activities. This exposure discouraged experienced and qualified horse people from participating in worthwhile group activities.

On June 18, 1997, President Clinton approved and signed into law the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997. The law has one important purpose: to assist non-profit organizations in recruiting and maintaining volunteer support. The law provides the volunteers with immunity from liability for actions occurring in their volunteer capacity. Thus, if a participant is injured by the negligence of a volunteer for a non-profit organization, the injured participant cannot successfully sue the volunteer. However, the law does not protect the organization from liability.

There are certain qualifications which must be met in order for the volunteer to enjoy this immunity. First, the organization must be a “qualifying organization”, that is, fall into one of the following categories: (a) A nonprofit organization which is “organized and conducted for public benefit and operated primarily for charitable, civic, educational, religious, welfare or health purposes”; or (b) any organization exempt from taxation under Sections 501(a) and 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code; or (c) A state or its subdivisions.

Second, the party must qualify as a “volunteer”, i.e. may not receive compensation for services (other than reasonable reimbursement or allowance for expenses actually incurred) or receive any gift in lieu of compensation in excess of $500.

Third, only certain activities are covered. A volunteer will enjoy protection only if he or she:

  • Acts within the scope of his or her responsibility;
  • Is properly licensed or certified, where the activity causing the injury required such license or certification;
  • Does not engage in willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer; or
  • Does not cause the injury while the volunteer operates a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft or other vehicle requiring a license.

It is important to note that several states have their own laws protecting volunteers. The newly enacted federal Volunteer Protection Act now serves as the minimum requirement, i.e. the new Act applies to all volunteers, unless a state law otherwise provides volunteers additional protection.

What can your club do to maximize protection for its volunteers? Attorney Mike Beethe of The Farris Law Firm offers the following suggestions for clubs and organizations:

  • Make sure your organization is a “qualified organization”;
  • Ensure proper event-specific training for all volunteers;
  • Maintain proper liability insurance;
  • Familiarize yourself with state laws protecting volunteers; and
  • Educate your members about this Act’s protection.

Michael Beethe, Esq.
About the Author

Farris Law Firm, LLC
20355 Nall Avenue, Stilwell, KS 66085
Phone: (913) 766-1262
Fax: (913) 766-1262

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Volunteers Enjoy New Protection

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