A teenage spectator at a nonprofit youth football league game who was asked to help the officials by holding the first down marker is protected by the federal Volunteer Protection Act and is not liable for injuries of a player who ran into the marker, a trial court in Connecticut has held. The plaintiff did not prove that the teenager who helped game officials had been guilty of gross negligence. (Hochman v. Eddy, Superior Ct., CT, Ansonia-Milford, No. CV 136013530, 3/24/14.)
Jesse Eddy, a 16-year-old attending a game with his parents to watch his younger brother play, was asked by a representative of the Cheshire football team if he would be part of the chain crew for the game. He agreed and was told how to work the first down marker. In the fourth quarter, a play caused the players to run off the field in the area where he was holding the marker. A player ran into the marker and claimed he was injured as the result of Jesse’s negligence.
The federal Volunteer Protection Law provides that “no volunteer of a nonprofit organization … shall be liable for harm caused by an act or omission of the volunteer … if … the volunteer was acting within the scope of the responsibilities” and was not guilty of gross negligence. (See Ready Reference Page: “Federal Law Protects Nonprofit Volunteers”) The plaintiff argued that Jesse did not fit within the definition of a volunteer.
The Act defines a volunteer as “an individual performing services for a nonprofit organization” without compensation. The statute uses the terms “for,” “of,” and “on behalf of” the nonprofit and the court ruled that the plaintiff had not given any reason to believe that Jesse was not within this definition. He was doing what he was asked to do by a representative of the nonprofit.
The plaintiff argued that prior cases had involved individuals who had a more active role with the nonprofit, such as officers, directors or coaches. But the Court said there was nothing in the law that restricted its applicability to “a fixed actor.” The plaintiff’s argument “ignores the entire purpose of the act to encourage people to help or volunteer their services” for programs and nonprofit organizations that depend on volunteer contributions. It would place “a new element or restriction” that would require “some undefined connection to the nonprofit” and would “negate the act and lead to the diminishing of volunteers for fear of liability.”
The Court also noted that the complaint did not allege gross negligence. The defendant argued that Connecticut did not have a separate cause of action for gross negligence and therefore he could not be liable under the Volunteer Protection Act. The Court said that a plaintiff could allege facts that would constitute gross negligence, but that he had not done so in this case. The allegations “are no more than ordinary negligence on the part of a defendant who did not react to a group of football players running toward him. The complaint is completely lacking in factual support for a determination that gross negligence was displayed by the defendant.”
The plaintiff also argued that the VPA was unconstitutional because it exceeds the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause and intrudes on matters traditionally reserved to the State’s basic tort law. But the Court pointed to a House Report prior to passage of the VPA that said “volunteerism is a national activity and the decline of volunteerism is a national concern.” Its purpose was not only to establish uniform national standards but also to provide sufficient legislation to encourage continued volunteerism.
The Court noted that the VPA allows states to opt out of coverage under it and that Connecticut had failed to do so.
YOU NEED TO KNOW
The result in this case is exactly the result intended by the Volunteer Protection Act, but nonprofit organizations should not interpret this case as suggesting that they may not have their own liability. Nonprofits can be liable for the negligence of a volunteer working in their behalf and they need insurance, not only to defend those who volunteer their time and effort to make the programs successful, but also to pay damages for which the organizations may nevertheless be liable.