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Municipalities and Volunteers – Preventing Liability Claims

By January 8, 2021January 11th, 2021Business Insurance, Municipality Insurance
Municipalities and Volunteers

Volunteers are awesome! Helping others and giving back to your community show noble character.

But as with most things, volunteers also bring with them a certain amount of risk.

For instance, consider an individual who lives across the street from an empty lot owned by your borough. Your maintenance crew is already carrying a heavy load managing your borough’s parks and communal space. Knowing this, the individual offers to maintain the empty lot – to mow it weekly. Should you let this volunteer run with this project?

Or think about a group of cub scouts who want to help with a litter pick up. Their scout leaders are eager to give the boys a chance to care for their community. Is it ok to have a group of minors cleaning up trash and litter? What risks do you need to consider before giving the boys some trash bags and letting them get started?

It seems like more and more municipalities are relying on volunteers to help out in some capacity. 

So how can you, as a borough, protect your public entity from the negative implications that might occur if a volunteer gets hurt?

And what are these negative implications? 

In the best-case scenario, you might have to file an insurance claim to cover a volunteer’s injury. In the worst-case scenario, your borough could end up in expensive litigation and suffer a damaged reputation. 

At Baily Insurance, we work with many municipalities. And to help them control their premium costs, we invest time and energy in claims prevention.

In this article, we explain the factors you need to consider before allowing people to volunteer for your municipality. Addressing these factors will help you prevent unnecessary claims.

Let’s talk about:

  • Who will be volunteering?
  • What kind of work will they be helping with?
  • What preventative measures do you need to take to protect your municipality?
  • What insurance products will cover our volunteers?

Who will be volunteering?

The first factor you need to consider before signing on volunteers is who will be helping. Is it going to be an individual or an organized group volunteering? Will minors be helping out?

Individuals vs. Organized Group

One factor that will affect how much risk volunteers pose is if they are private citizens or an organized group.  Usually, if an organized group is volunteering, their parent organization has insurance coverages in place to cover incidents that could result in a claim.

With an organized group, any claims should be filed on their insurance policy. To make sure this happens, you will need a contract in place with the volunteer organization. You should also have your borough added to their insurance policy. 

In terms of the contract, your attorney should draw up documents in which you “ask to be indemnified and held harmless.” This language means that your borough will not be responsible for any injury, illness, death, or property damage.

You will also need to arrange to have all risk transferred to the volunteer organization’s insurance policy. To do this, your borough must be listed as an additional insured on their organization’s insurance policy. 

This will put your borough’s insurance in second place. Then if the volunteering organization causes property damage or bodily injury now or in the future, their insurance will cover the incident. 

Because individuals do not carry commercial insurance, you cannot transfer all risk to the volunteer. To counteract this, all individual volunteers should sign a waiver. This will add protection for the borough. 

This waiver should state that the volunteer releases your borough from any liability – injury, illness, death, or property damage. Essentially the individuals would be waiving their right to sue if they are harmed.

Minors and Volunteering

When minors volunteer for any organization there is increased risk and a higher degree of liability. In lawsuits involving the harming of a minor, courts have traditionally awarded higher damages in favor of the minor. Because of that increased risk, your borough must seriously consider this added risk before allowing individuals under the age of 18 to volunteer for your borough.

If you do allow young people to volunteer, you must have sexual misconduct liability insurance. This is also the case if your borough offers any programming for children. 

For programming that pertains to minors, your volunteers will also need to submit background clearance checks. According to the Pennsylvania State government website

“All prospective volunteers must obtain the following clearances: 1. Report of criminal history from the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP); and 2. Child Abuse History Clearance from the Department of Human Services (Child Abuse). Additionally, a fingerprint based federal criminal history (FBI) submitted through the Pennsylvania State Police or its authorized agent is required if the volunteer has lived outside the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the last 10 years.”

What kind of work will your volunteers be helping with?

The type of work you allow volunteers to help with is the second factor you must consider. Certain activities pose a higher degree of risk than other activities. As in the scenario above, mowing grass has a higher degree of risk than raking leaves. Mowing accidents can be very serious, potentially leaving someone maimed for life. 

In general, jobs that have the greatest risk for injury are jobs where an individual might slip and fall or suffer strain from lifting heavy objects. That might include carrying heavy bags of mulch to a community trail, helping with crowd control at a Christmas parade with icy sidewalks, or clearing out heavy loads of trash on a community clean up day. 

When you are considering jobs that volunteers might help with, you will want to consider the likelihood of an accident occurring from those jobs. Your insurance agent should help you with managing these types of risks and should advise you on any potential for injury.

You also need to consider the hazards associated with a job. For example, cleaning up the berm of a roadway has a high level of hazard. Cars and trucks whizzing by make this work less safe than handing out flyers at a community festival. Or as above, using equipment like lawnmowers or front loaders is a significant hazard.

You should limit very hazardous jobs to paid employees only. That way you can make sure that your borough is adequately covered if an accident should occur.

One final consideration you must look at is the long-term risk that certain projects might present to a borough. These would include projects that will be used by the general public. 

If your borough allows a community group to erect playground equipment and a child later gets hurt on that equipment because it was not properly installed, your borough is liable. Or let’s say you have an individual who volunteers to build handicap-accessible ramps for your municipal building. If someone gets injured on the ramp, you could be liable. 

When volunteers help with these kinds of projects, you need to make sure your volunteers are capable and qualified to do the project. You also should have the finished project inspected before it is used.

What preventative measures do you need to take to protect your borough?

Beyond making sure that waivers are signed by individual volunteers or that potential risk is transferred to the appropriate organization, what other important steps do you will need to take to protect your municipality? 

Training

For any work that volunteers will be doing for your borough, you need to make sure they are properly trained. Consider any volunteers like employees. Any training you would give to an employee for a job, you should also provide for your volunteers.

The goal of all training is to prevent injury or damage. 

Practically speaking, for volunteers helping with tasks that cause back strain or injury, you should train them on lifting techniques. If your volunteers will be completing tasks using a computer, cybersecurity training may be in order. If volunteers will be working with children, sexual misconduct training should be provided. 

Training your volunteers lessens the probability of injury or damage. It also adds protection to you by decreasing your borough’s liability. 

Protective Gear

Your volunteers also need to be outfitted with proper gear for their work. If they are removing litter from roadways, make sure volunteers have orange vests and reflective gear. Provide them with gloves and trash pickers for sharp or dangerous trash. If volunteers are helping with any lifting, provide back supports. 

By supplying the necessary protective gear, you also can decrease your liability.

What insurance products will cover our volunteers?

If a volunteer gets injured while serving your municipality, your municipality could be sued for liability. You could also be sued if property damage occurs due to volunteers or their work. Finally, you are at risk if a third-party is injured by work your volunteers completed. With this liability, your borough should confirm that necessary insurance policies are in place. 

Generally speaking, most insurance policies cover volunteers as insureds just like they would cover your employees. This is the case with the following:

  • General Liability – this will cover damage done to other people or property
  • Cyber Liability – this coverage will protect you from any cyber incident 
  • Auto Liability – this would cover damage or injury caused by a volunteer driving a borough-owned vehicle
  • Sexual Misconduct Liability – this will protect your public entity and even the individual as long as the individual did not commit a crime

One insurance product that does not protect your volunteers is workers’ compensation insurance. In Pennsylvania, volunteers can not file a claim on your workers’ compensation policy for medical care or lost wages. This is one reason it is best to put effort into training volunteers and taking other measures to limit the likelihood of a volunteer being injured.

Summing It All Up

If your borough is going to rely on volunteers, you need to have the following protocols in place:

  1. Make sure all risk is transferred to the proper organization.
  2. Have all individual volunteers sign waivers.
  3. If minors are volunteering, check with your insurance agent on your sexual misconduct liability coverage. 
  4. If volunteers will be working with minors, collect clearances before they begin volunteering.
  5. With your insurance agent’s help, assess the amount of hazard a job poses before allowing volunteers to do that job.
  6. Have all projects completed by volunteers inspected before they are used.
  7. Provide training for your volunteers – treat them like employees in the training you require.
  8. Provide protective equipment for your volunteers.
  9. Meet with your insurance agent to ensure that your borough has the coverages in place to protect you from liability claims.

Just like Ben Franklin noted, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Taking a proactive approach to volunteer’s work will protect your borough and prevent unnecessary claims.

If you have questions about your municipality’s current insurance program, please get in touch with us. Working with boroughs is one of our specialties. We can act as a second pair of eyes if you’re looking for an outside opinion on the effectiveness of your insurance program.

 

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