“Sue Everyone” v “Volunteer”
Philip K. Howard, chairman of Common Good, an organization dedicated to legal reform, has an editorial “Charity Case” in today's Wall Street Journal decrying a local Wisconsin case that may have a chilling effect on volunteerism.
Like a lake receding from its shores, the area of our freedom continues to diminish with each new theory of liability. The latest casualty is volunteerism. Last month, a jury in Milwaukee found the Catholic Archdiocese liable because a volunteer for a Catholic lay organization, driving her own car, ran a red light and caused an accident while delivering a statue of the Virgin Mary to an invalid. Although the church does not direct the activities of this group, called the Legion of Mary, its meetings are held on church property. The jury decided the Archdiocese should pay $17 million to the paralyzed victim, an 82-year-old semi-retired barber.
There's plenty of volunteer activities involving larger organizations I see around here. Beside my own efforts with NWSAFE and “Camp White Feather” for the Boy and Girl Scouts, there's Habitat for Humanity, SOLV, Junior Achievement, National Engineers Month and many other volunteer activities popular with folks in my workplace. We all drive and IBM supports our time and efforts applied to these activities.
None of us will want to incur liability for our employer or for these fine organizations (although I keep my NWSAFE activities completely independent of my workplace activities).
Should charities be accountable for the driving of their volunteers? Charities, unlike business, don't typically hire and fire their volunteers. Charities aren't organized to maximize profits—they're trying to help society. Charities open their arms—come in and help make life better for our community. How many charities carry $17 million of insurance? And will $17 million be enough for the next accident?
At least with NWSAFE and White Feather our instructors have their own insurance of some form, although never to the tune of millions of dollars. That's hardly the case for the other volunteer organizations I mentioned.
Mr. Howard's argument rings true, however. Juries have no standards to apply in these cases and as a result look solely at the merits and not the intentions of the parties involved. There needs to be policy set to handle this (hardly unique) circumstance. Why is the liability so easily transferred to the volunteer organization that hardly governs the activities of the individual? The individual is not an agent of the volunteer organization, for example. There are very clear obligations in such a case.
Restoring trust in society requires a shift in the goals of justice, which is supposed to provide the foundation of freedom, not just a mechanism to resolve disputes. A system that tolerates wildly disparate results from one jury to the next promotes fear, not freedom. For Americans to feel free in daily choices, judges and legislatures must reclaim the responsibility to set the boundaries who can sue for what. That's what it means to live under the rule of law.
Consistency is a virtue, especially when it comes to law.
Posted Thursday, Mar 17 2005 08:24 AM