No Good Deed Should Be Punished: Harris Beach Wins Summary Judgment Under Volunteer Protection Act

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In Jeraci v. Cooper et al., 2021 NY Slip Op 03025 (2d Dep’t May 12, 2021), the Appellate Division, Second Department of the New York State Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of a negligence claim against a defendant who donated his time in service of a charitable cause. The dismissal was based upon Cooper being statutorily immune from liability pursuant to the federal Volunteer Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. § 14501.

Plaintiff and defendant Cooper were members of the Sullivan County ATV Association, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to raise money for charity by holding all-terrain vehicle rallies. Plaintiff sued Cooper, among others, to recover for personal injuries he sustained while performing maintenance on trails in preparation for the event. At the time of the accident, Plaintiff was using a chain saw to cut up and remove a fallen tree. When the saw got stuck in the tree, Cooper applied the bucket of the excavator to the trunk of the tree, causing it to shift suddenly, breaking Plaintiff’s leg.

Defendant Cooper filed a third-party action against the ATV association. On behalf of the Association, Harris Beach interposed the Volunteer Protection Act as an affirmative defense. Following the completion of discovery, the ATV association moved for summary judgment dismissing the third-party complaint and defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, both asserting that Cooper enjoyed statutory immunity under the Act. Plaintiffs opposed the Association’s motion, but in upholding the grant of summary judgment, the Appellate Division held that Plaintiffs were not aggrieved by the dismissal of Cooper’s third-party claims.

While not commonly known, the Volunteer Protection Act was enacted in June of 1997. Congress explained that it was passed to provide protections from liability abuses to volunteers serving nonprofit organizations and governmental entities. The Act provides that volunteers who provide their services gratuitously are immune from liability based on alleged negligence while acting within the scope of the volunteer’s responsibilities within the organization. The statute contains certain exceptions, such as declining to extend immunity for recklessness or willful misconduct and excluding immunity from liability that arises from the use of a motor vehicle.

It should be noted that the protections of the Volunteer Protection Act do not accrue to the nonprofit in a suit brought by an injured person against it. Similarly, the Act does not alter liability that may exist between a volunteer and the organization they volunteer for. In this instance, the Association was able to interpose the Act as a defense to Cooper’s third-party complaint, arguing in effect that that Cooper’s immunity vis a vis Plaintiff left no liability for Cooper to pass through to the Association that sponsored the event. The Act would not have precluded liability of the Association based on negligence if Plaintiff maintained a direct action against the Association.

The Volunteer Protection Act seeks to encourage volunteerism to preserve the benefit to society derived from charitable organizations in our communities. This is an important protection that not for profit and governmental entities should make would-be volunteers aware of.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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