Personal injury law – new case about volunteers

Posted by: Nov 25, 2013By Brian Stutheit

Martin Rieger was was helping his friend, Chris Margotta, trim a large tree on a Buddhist temple’s property.  Rieger had agreed that Rieger would not be paid for his help and would do it as volunteer work.  Margotta, whose wife was a member of the Temple, was also a volunteer and had arranged a group of men, including Rieger, to help with the project.  Margotta acted as the leader of the project, although for a part of the project, a group of monks from the Temple were observing.  Late in the day, Rieger was holding the ladder for Margotta while Margotta was cutting branches from the tree.  Margotta cut a branch, which fell onto Rieger, causing him serious injuries. Rieger tried to sue the Margotta and the Temple, but lost for two reasons. 

First, his claim against Margotta was barred by Colorado’s  Volunteer Service Act.  Under that Act, “volunteer” means a person performing services for a nonprofit organization, a nonprofit corporation, a governmental entity, or a hospital without compensation.  Volunteers are generally immune from liability for injuries they negligently cause.  One notable exception is that volunteers are not immune for a  negligent act involving the operation of a motor vehicle.
Second, The only way to sue a landowner such as the Temple for

accidental injuries suffered on the landowner’s property

is under the Colorado premises liability act.  One generally cannot sue the landowner for negligence. Volunteers such as Rieger are considered “licensees” under Colorado’s  law.
A licensee may recover only for damages caused:

(I) By the landowner’s unreasonable failure to exercise reasonable care with respect to dangers created by the landowner of which the landowner actually knew; or

(II) By the landowner’s unreasonable failure to warn of dangers not created by the landowner which are not ordinarily present on property of the type involved and of which the landowner actually knew.

Lessons from this case are that volunteers have lots of legal protections, even if the make mistakes.  However, there are circumstances under which volunteers can be liable.  Someone hurt by a volunteer should check with an attorney to see what loopholes the law allows to sue.