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    The Lawletter Blog

    PERSONAL INJURY: Tort Immunity for Nonprofit Volunteers Is Limited to Their Organizational Roles

    Posted by John M. Stone on Thu, Aug 19, 2021 @ 11:08 AM

    The Lawletter Vol 46 No 4

    John Stone—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

                A youth mentor brought a 12-year-old boy to his farm for a weekend of outdoor activities, where he allowed the boy to drive an all-terrain vehicle ("ATV") without a helmet or supervision. When the boy suffered permanent serious injuries, including a brain injury and partial blindness, after he lost control of the ATV, he sued the mentor for negligent entrustment and supervision. A trial court granted summary judgment dismissing the suit, concluding that the Minnesota Nonprofit Corporations Act immunized the defendant from civil liability for his alleged negligence.

                An appellate court reversed the lower court because the Act applies only to a volunteer's actions that are undertaken "within the scope of the person's responsibilities as a[n] . . . agent[.]" Hogan v. Brass, No. A20-0846, 2021 WL 852073 (Minn. Ct. App. Mar. 8, 2021). In this case, the nonprofit organization through which the mentor and the boy became associated connected adult mentors with children affected by a parent's incarceration. It provided only same-day mentoring services, encouraging each volunteer mentor to connect with the child on a weekly basis for one to four hours. In various ways, the organization expressly declined a role in interactions that involve overnight or extended arrangements.

                When the mentor informed his organization of his interest in taking the boy on extended hunting trips and overnight stays, it offered the boy's father a permission slip allowing the boy to attend multiple overnight stays and hunting events with the mentor. The father signed the permission slip, which expressly restated the limit of the mentoring oversight, stating that overnight stays were not part of the mentoring role of the volunteer.

                When the lower court had granted the defendant mentor's motion for summary judgment based on statutory immunity, it reasoned that by offering the permission slip to the father, the organization expanded the mentorship role to include the boy's extended stays at the mentor's farm. It added its view that the boy's injuries did not occur during an overnight stay because he crashed the ATV at 5 p.m., and that is "not in the nighttime."

                The court of appeals, despite expressing its high regard for the mentor's altruism, disagreed with the lower court and reinstated the negligence claims. The statute, Minn. Stat. Ann. § 317A.257, provides that a person who serves without compensation as a director, officer, trustee, member, or agent of an organization exempt from state income taxation is not civilly liable for an act or omission by that person if the act or omission was in good faith, was within the scope of the person's responsibilities in the organization, and did not constitute willful or reckless misconduct. (The statute has an exception to such immunity that allows an individual to have liability for physical injury to the person of another or for wrongful death that is "personally and directly caused by the individual," but the court in Brass concluded that the mentor did not "personally and directly" cause the boy's injury. The mentor had stayed behind when the boy left on the ATV, so that the mentor's alleged negligence was indirect, that is, relating to his supervisory duties.)

                The immunity from civil liability afforded by the Nonprofit Corporations Act to a nonprofit organization's agent for actions done within the scope of the person's responsibilities as an agent does not include the person's actions that exceed the organization's express limits on the scope of its activities. A person cannot act on an organization's behalf by engaging in conduct that extends well beyond the actual and express limits that the organization imposes on itself. As applied in the case before the court, the mentor could not have been providing mentoring services "within the scope" of his responsibilities as an agent of the organization if his mentoring behavior or its duration exceeded the organization's mentoring parameters.

                The mentor was not entitled to statutory immunity since he was engaging in conduct outside the organization's expressly limited mission. He might have been acting on his own behalf or on the boy's father's behalf, but he was not acting on the organization's behalf. Even though the organization sanctioned the boy's ATV riding through the permission slip with its limiting language, the activity still occurred during an excursion that was expressly outside the durational scope of the defendant's mentorship duties. 2021 WL 852073, at *4.

                The court in Brass reached its conclusion with some reluctance, observing that the mentor's generosity toward the boy over the years and his sacrifices on the boy's behalf were "nothing short of extraordinary" and that the boy had referred to his relationship with the mentor as "wonderful." That said, the court was constrained to strictly construe statutory immunity from common-law remedies. Jackson ex rel. Sorenson v. Options Residential, Inc., 896 N.W.2d 549, 555 (Minn. Ct. App. 2017). In the court's words:

    The statute does not afford immunity based on good intentions and exemplary dedication, and courts lack the constitutional authority to extend statutory immunity beyond stated limits.

    Brass, 2021 WL 852073, at *5.

    Topics: personal injury, John M Stone, nonprofit volunteers, tort immunity, actual and express limits

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