Volunteers, whether from its own congregation or from the public at large, often make up an essential core of a church’s operations. Volunteers may help with day-to-day administration and maintenance tasks. They may also help with special events, like public outreach drives. And even the church’s leadership team may be comprised of a mix of volunteers and salaried employees. When a church relies on the help of volunteers, it needs to understand how it may be held liable for its volunteers’ actions.
Churches can be liable for the actions of their agents.
Unless an exception applies, an organization typically is responsible for damages caused by its agents. An agency relationship can exist where an organization had control, or should have had control, over an individual’s actions. This concept extends to volunteers, especially if they are doing work under the direction of a church manager, minister, or employee for and on behalf of the church.
Volunteers of nonprofit organizations, like churches, are protected in many states against personal liability for unintentional injuries they cause to other people during the course of their volunteer work. In this case, the concept of “injury” goes beyond just physical injuries that require medical care. It also captures property damage and financial losses.
Some states shield volunteers from liability, but that may not apply to the church itself.
State laws vary dramatically in this area. California law shields volunteer directors and executives of nonprofits from liability for injuries caused to a third party while the volunteer is acting in good faith and within the scope of his or her volunteer duties, and so long as the activities of the volunteer are covered by the organization’s insurance, such as a general liability policy. The director or executive can still avoid liability if at least a good faith effort was made to obtain such insurance prior to the event. These exceptions are not available for intentional, reckless, or gross negligence on the part of the volunteer.
For the church, the immunity of a volunteer can, in some ways, increase the risk for the church itself. That is why it is so important for churches to carry adequate levels of insurance that will cover the anticipated activities of its volunteers.
As an agent of a church, a volunteer can cause a range of other problems beyond common circumstances like car accidents while driving a church-owned vehicle. A volunteer can also make misrepresentations to donors, claim to have the authority to bind the church to contracts, or breach third party intellectual property rights while doing church work. The list of potential issues is large, but a straightforward solution is available. Volunteers should be asked to sign clear, written parameters of what they can and cannot do on the church’s behalf. In many instances, training volunteers can not only save the church from liability but also make the volunteers more effective in their work. And of course, having a clear volunteer policy to guide church leaders ensures consistency across the institution.
Call the Church Law Center to discuss your volunteer program.
The Church Law Center of California provides experienced legal counsel to churches and other nonprofits on matters of governance and risk management. We would be happy to help your church examine its volunteer practices and improve its policies to protect the church against unnecessary liability. For an appointment call us at (949) 689-0437 or reach out through our contact page.