By Eileen Buzzello
Assuming you are a charitable organization in Maine, maybe not. Maine is one of only nine states in the United States that still follows the common law doctrine of charitable immunity. Under Maine law a director, officer or volunteer of a charitable organization is immune from civil liability for personal injury, death or property damage as a result of their negligent act or failure to act.
So what’s the genesis of this concept? It is rooted in the idea that charitable organizations are funded primarily by private or public donations. These gifts/grants often stem from an interest or passion of the giver. Many donations are given for very specific purposes. If these funds were allowed to be invaded for the purposes of satisfying a judgment in a lawsuit, the donor’s intent would not be honored. It could jeopardize these sources of charitable support and – as a consequence – jeopardize the very existence of the charitable organization.
There are some exceptions to this broad grant of immunity, however. First, the act or failure to act must be within the normal course and scope of the organization’s activities. Only negligent acts or omissions are covered – not intentional ones. For example, even though a church may be a charitable organization, if one of its clergy assaults a member of the congregation they would not be immune from liability.
Another exception to charitable immunity is where the organization has a liability policy. In this circumstance, the organization is considered to have waived it’s immunity by purchasing the policy. Recovery is limited to the amount of the policy, however, so funds held in trust by the organization would not be vulnerable.
Finally, if the act or failure to act arises out of the actor’s operation of a motor vehicle or other vehicle that requires the operator or owner to possess an operator’s license or maintain insurance, the doctrine of charitable immunity does not apply. Similarly to the liability insurance provision discussed above, recovery is limited to the amount of the insurance policy coverage.
Being aware of the scope and limitations of the doctrine of charitable immunity is central to an organization’s risk management strategy. For more information on how Maine laws impact volunteers and the charitable organizations they serve, Click here.
Interested in similar topics? Participate in Eileen’s Webinar on May 19 at 9am: Risk Management Strategies for Managers of Volunteers.
Eileen Buzzello is a guest blogger and a retired attorney serving as a volunteer through the AmeriCorps VISTA program as an Emergency Management VISTA for VolunteerMaine.