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Volunteer Protections Act of 1997

2002 January 3

Volunteer Protections Act of 1997

U.S. Senate Bill 543 by Senator Paul D. Coverdell (R-Georgia) became Public Law 105-19 on June 18, 1997 when signed by President Bill Clinton.

The new law provides certain protections to volunteers, nonprofit organizations, and governmental entities in lawsuits based on the activities of volunteers.

The Volunteer Protections Act of 1997 preempts State law except when such law provides additional protection from liability relating to volunteers in the performance of services for a nonprofit organization or governmental entity.

The law exempts volunteers from liability for harm caused by an act or omission of the volunteer if:

  1. the volunteer was acting within the scope of his or her responsibilities at the time;
  2. was properly licensed or otherwise authorized for the activities;
  3. the harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless conduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed, and;
  4. the harm was not caused by the volunteer operating a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or other vehicle for which the State requires the operator or owner to possess an operator’s license or maintain insurance.

The law prohibits the award of punitive damages against a volunteer unless the claimant establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the harm was proximately caused by an action of such volunteer which constitutes willful or criminal misconduct or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed.

The liability limits do not apply to any misconduct:

  1. that constitutes a crime of violence, or act of international terrorism, or a hate crime;
  2. that involves a sexual offense or a violation of civil rights law, or;
  3. under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Related developments concerning
liability of volunteers

How the Volunteer Protections Act of 1997 might affect the Texas Tort Claims Act (Sec. 101.021 Civil Practice and Remedies Code, Title 5) remains to be seen, but in January, 1994, the Supreme Court of Texas inn Harris County v. Dillard (D-3293) held that “volunteer reserve sheriff was not ‘employee’ within the meaning of the Tort Claims Act, for whose conduct the county could be held liable.”

    Following that decision, the Harris County Attorney gave this decision:

“The county or the constable do not incur any liability by reason of the appointment of a reserve deputy constable if the reserve deputy constable incurs a personal injury while serving in that capacity.”

The opinion letter includes whether the county would be liable where the reserve deputy injures a third party, and refers to Dillard and states that

“the Court reasoned that an unpaid volunteer reserve deputy was not an ‘employee’ within the meaning of the Tort Claims Act and thus, Harris county was not liable for the actions of the reserve deputy.”

The letter says the county would not be liable for any injury caused by an unpaid reserve deputy nor for injuries to the reserve deputy, himself, assuming it does not involve a wrongful act or a policy of the county.

    In a decision April 28, 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a woman who was injured by a reserve deputy sheriff during a vehicle stop could not collect damages from the county that employed him just because the sheriff had not adequately reviewed his background before hiring him.

That case is Board of County Commissioners of
Bryan County (OK) v. Brown, et al, No. 95-1100.

Revised 3 January 2002

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