Organizations’ volunteers are open to liability

  • By Paul Pukis Mosaic Insurance Alliance
  • Tuesday, August 28, 2012 5:32pm

In 2006, a Wisconsin jury decided the victim of an auto accident caused by a church volunteer deserved $558,366.06 for past medical expenses; $750,000 for future medical expenses; $10 million for past pain, suffering and disability; and $5 million for future pain, suffering and disability. The jury also awarded the victim’s wife $500,000 for loss of consortium. The final judgment in Heikkinen v. United Services Automobile Association, Margaret E. Morse, Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America and Archdiocese of Milwaukee totaled $18 million.

Are these awards usual? No, the size of this judgment is uncommon but the frequency of these types of claims are rising. As organizations look to streamline expenses and as seniors look to keep busy, more volunteers are active in our community. So the question is, what happened?

The story starts out as many auto accidents do: A driver ran a red light and collided with another vehicle. The resulting injuries to the other driver were severe, including the loss of one leg. The woman who ran the red light was a member of a local church and volunteered for a local service organization, as many of her church friends did. At the time of the accident, the woman was delivering a religious statue for the volunteer organization in her own car. As evidence above, the jury found the woman’s negligence to be the sole cause of the accident and that she was driving her vehicle on behalf of the church and volunteer organization.

Many organizations rely on volunteers, or you may even serve in a volunteer capacity as board members on nonprofits, PTAs, booster clubs, church boards and civic organizations. Or there are the more physically demanding volunteer capacities such as firefighting, Scout Leader or coaching that have different legal concerns as well.

Some of the physical activities may present bodily injury or property damage exposures. Other activities may involve finances where poor decisions may lead to a financial loss for an organization. And, we haven’t even started talking about transporting kids or seniors to and from sporting events and medical facilities on a volunteer basis.

Does your organization have coverage for volunteers compared to employees? Does the board or organization you volunteer for have coverage for you as a volunteer?

As business owners, we are leaders in our community. Because of this, we are asked to help people get started (interns) and to donate our time as leaders of nonprofits and other volunteer organizations. The purpose of this column was to raise your awareness to the potential liability exposure that exists for the folks who volunteer for you or for you as the volunteer. I can’t think of anything better than an $18 million verdict to grab attention.

For other questions about your business insurance, contact Paul Pukis at Mosaic Insurance Alliance at 425-320-4280 or

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