Can A Volunteer Be Held Liable In The Province of Ontario?July 31, 2018
Charities and non-for profit groups are highly dependent upon the selfless and dedicated services of volunteers. These volunteer workers support the work of paid employees and board members. However, there is often uncertainty and vagueness about the duties, responsibilities, and legal obligations of volunteers. When volunteering your time, it is critical that you think about whether you, as a volunteer, can be held liable in the Province of Ontario?
The short answer is, in theory, yes. Volunteers have duties and obligations that are defined in the law, and if they fail to meet this standard, then they may well be held liable for any resultant injury or damage. Fortunately, most volunteers can avoid liability by being informed about the organizations’ policies and taking reasonable care in their volunteer work.
The law governing volunteer liability first examines whether a volunteer owes a duty of care (whether the relationship between the volunteer and the recipient of the services is sufficiently close, and whether there are any policy considerations that ought to limit that scope). Provided that there is a duty of care owed, then the law will then examine whether the conduct of the volunteer breached the standard of care. In straightforward terms, this means that a volunteer must act in a manner consistent with that of an ordinary, reasonable person in the same circumstances. Reasonableness is determined based the specific facts of the event. Volunteers may be held liable in Ontario if their conduct results in injury or other damage to a person or property that falls under their care. The volunteer is obliged to prevent foreseeable injury or damage.
A volunteer may be held to a higher standard if they claim to possess special skills, such as experience working with children; persons under disability; accounting or tax expertise; legal expertise; and medical expertise, to name but a few examples. In these cases, a volunteer may well be held to a higher standard than the “reasonable person”. If you fall into one of these categories as a volunteer, and appear to be dispensing advice or services within your area of expertise, it is sensible to delineate that you are providing general information only, and that you are not providing counsel or expertise that is to be relied upon.
Roles and Responsibilities
As a matter of practical reality, if there is an injury or damage occurrence arising out of the conduct of a volunteer, it is more likely than not that the organization would be found vicariously liable, presuming that the volunteer was acting in the scope and course of their duties. Organizations ought to have policies and procedures in place that address the roles and responsibilities of volunteers, just as they do for their employees. Training and supervision are also key elements of the responsibilities of the organization. The insurance policy of the organization ought to name volunteers as insured parties.
Notwithstanding the doctrine of vicarious liability, and the myriad obligations of the organization itself, it is crucial to remember that any individual, who provides volunteer services, is responsible for their own conduct. If that conduct falls below the standard required by law, then that volunteer may well be found liable. Ask questions about what is expected of you. Do only what is asked of you, and act only within the scope of your volunteer activities.
If you are considering providing volunteer services, and have concerns or questions about any tasks you are being asked to perform, it is prudent to speak with someone in a leadership capacity at the organization and confirm your role, duties and expectations. It is also sensible to contact your own insurer, (most likely the policy governing your homeowners or tenants insurance), and establish what liability coverage you may have in your role as a volunteer. If however, you do get sued while participating in volunteer activities, don’t hesitate to contact a lawyer immediately to protect yourself.
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