What Is a Volunteer?
A volunteer is a person who provides a service for another person, an organization, or a business and who receives no financial benefits for those services. While volunteers can perform many services, such as candy-stripers in a hospital, Big Brothers, and canvassers for the Cancer Society, you may also be a volunteer in a legal sense if you do things like help your neighbour push his car out of the snow, or look after your friend’s home while she is on vacation.
Does a Volunteer Have Any Legal Responsibility?
Yes. Volunteers have a responsibility, which is called a duty of care, to avoid causing injury to someone else through carelessness. The duty of care also means that a volunteer has a responsibility to warn others of dangers or hazards over which the volunteer has control, or to control the behavior of someone who could injure another person and who is under the control of the volunteer. Responsibilities or duties arise from relationships between people. For example, you go to your doctor because you have a lump in your breast. Your doctor has a duty to take all reasonable care to properly diagnose your problem, to advise you of the methods of treatment available to you, and all the likely consequences of those methods. If your neighbour asks you to look after her home while she is on vacation and you agree to do so, you have the duty to make all reasonable efforts to make sure that her property is not damaged or vandalized while you are looking after it. If you do things necessary to make the home looked occupied, e.g. picking up the newspapers and mail, cutting the grass, turning lights on in the home, and the home is burglarized, you should not be responsible. If you totally ignore the property or don’t look after it the way a reasonable homeowner would, you may be responsible for any loss that your neighbour may suffer.
When you volunteer to do something, you accept the responsibilities that go along with that position. If you offer to do something and you do it badly, you could be held responsible. Generally, if you do not volunteer your services, you can’t be held liable for someone else’s loss or injury.
How Great Is My Duty of Care?
The degree or amount of duty that you owe to someone else will depend on the circumstances and the skill that is required for the job. It will also depend on the age, intelligence and the experience that you and the person you are helping have. An adult who volunteers to babysit a four-year-old will have a greater responsibility to see that no harm comes to that child than a fourteen-year-old who is babysitting a four year old.
Once you offer your services, you create a relationship between you and the other person. If you volunteer to do a job and then abandon the job before you are finished, you could also be held responsible for any loss or injury the other person may suffer. For example, your ladies’ auxiliary is taking a group of senior citizens shopping before Christmas. You are assigned to act as escort for one elderly woman. You get tired of shopping, and you leave her sitting in the shopping mall and go home. The woman wanders away alone and slips, falls, and breaks an arm. You could be sued for her injury.
Does Anyone Owe Me a Duty?
Yes. If you are acting as a volunteer, the person or organization for which you give your time owes you a duty to take care to make sure that you are not placed in a situation of danger. For example, if you work as a volunteer for a hospital, the hospital has a duty to make sure that you are properly instructed about your responsibilities and the limits of your responsibilities. The hospital must also make sure that you are not exposed to unsafe areas, infections, or any other risk that you are not qualified to deal with. As a volunteer, you do not have the same protection given to employees under various laws such as the Workers’ Compensation Act, Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, and Employment Standards Act. The organization that relies on your services has the right to control your activity, to provide proper instruction and supervision for you, to make sure that the work premises and any equipment are inspected and repaired, and to warn you of any hazards associated with your volunteer work. The organization may be responsible for any injury you suffer. For example, if you are injured by a patient in a hospital while helping that patient, the hospital may be liable for your injury.
Under the Occupiers’ Liability Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act, the organization could be held liable for your injuries if it does not provide a safe environment for you. A violation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act is an offence. Penalties can lie very severe since the maximum fine for a first offence is $500,000 and an additional $30,000 for each day that the offence continues, or imprisonment for a term of not more than six months. A second offence carries a maximum fine of $1,000,000 plus $60,000 for each day that the offence continues.
Since many activities in Alberta depend on volunteers, it is important that the volunteers, the organization and anyone else who is involved be aware of their rights and responsibilities. Contact your lawyer, Legal Guidance Clinic or Women’s Center Clinic for further information.