Back in February of 2005 we blogged the case of Margaret Morse, a member of the Legion of Mary, a volunteer group affiliated with Christ King church in Wisconsin. In the course of delivering a statue of the Virgin Mary to a parishioner, she ran a red light and crashed into a vehicle driven by Hjalmar Heikkinen, an 82 year old barber. Heikkinen was paralyzed. A jury awarded him $17 million - and tapped the liability policy of the church to pay it. The case reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where a split ruling (3 to 3) sustained the original award.
There apparently was language in the church's insurance policy that included coverage for volunteers. While the Legion of Mary operated with considerable independence from the church itself, it was founded in 1968 with the support of a parish priest. It's not far fetched to say that the specific action involved here - delivery of the statue - was related to the core function of the church. But then, any act of kindness might fall under that very wide umbrella!
Liability for Volunteers
Beyond the unfortunate circumstances of this case, anyone using volunteers needs to be aware of potential liabilities. In our increasingly litigious society, prudent managers must take the extra step to protect their companies/organizations. Here are a few very basic steps in managing volunteers:
- If they're going to drive at any time, check the driving records. If the record is spotty or poor, do not allow them to drive while carrying out volunteer duties.
- If they are near children or vulnerable adults, or entering private homes, run a criminal background check
- Require a resume. It's important to know who they are and where they come from.
- Train, orient, supervise and document. The services might be free, but proper management requires the commitment of adequate resources.
- If they are not working out, terminate the relationship. As in regular hiring, it's important to take action before serious problems emerge.
It's not at all clear that any actions would have insulated the church from this unexpected liability. The court's ruling has stretched the definition of volunteer and liability to the limits. Nonetheless, when it comes to volunteers in general, it is indeed time to look the gift horse in the mouth. The notion that services do not "cost" anything is attractive, especially in the non-profit world. But in a culture that puts a price on everything, everything has a cost. The cost of volunteers lies in the essential screening, training and supervision. Anything less opens the door to very big liabilities indeed.