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Volunteering? Ask About Car Insurance

Accepting work as a volunteer for a non-profit organization can be a rewarding experience. Before you begin to accept specific tasks, though, you need to understand exactly what your legal liabilities are in case of an accident. For example, if you are helping drive an elderly person to the doctor and the person is hurt while in your care, will the person or their relatives be able to sue you for damages? The answer varies depending on what state you live in and the specific details of the accident.

Offering to Help Can Be Expensive

Driving someone around town in your own vehicle or a company vehicle while you are performing a task for a volunteer agency can put you at risk for an expensive insurance settlement if there is an injury accident. If you are driving your car, your insurance will cover up to your policy's limit. Anything above your insurance limit might be recovered through a lawsuit. Driving a car that is owned by the non-profit agency means that the agency will usually be responsible for covering any damages or injuries.

It is your responsibility to find out what damages or injuries you would be responsible for in any given situation. Ask the volunteer organization whether you would be held liable for injuries if someone slips and falls while you are helping them to the car. Find out who would have to pay in the event of a car accident. In today's litigious society, it can pay to avoid situations that could cost you more than you can afford to cover.

Volunteer Protection Varies Widely from State to State

Each state has a different approach to protecting volunteers from legal action after an accident. In some states, organizations are allowed to protect their volunteers through existing worker's compensation laws. Other states do not include volunteers under any employment protections. Even if you are in a situation where you are trying to help someone, it is possible that you could be sued for alleged negligence or even criminal actions. The federal and state laws provide some limited protections for volunteers, but they cannot prevent someone from suing you in the first place.

California Private Car Insurance Covers Volunteering

In the state of California, anyone who is driving for a non-profit organization is automatically covered by his or her own personal car insurance policy. Volunteer coverage is written into the standard minimum insurance requirements throughout the state. You will continue to be covered by your personal insurance policy even if the non-profit reimburses you for your mileage while you are working for them. Anyone who is reimbursed for more than the actual mileage may not be covered under the standard liability policy, however. Make sure you understand what your responsibilities are before you accept payment or agree to drive someone while you are on the job.

Drivers Using Unfamiliar Cars at Higher Risk

Research has shown that driving while volunteering does not increase a person's risk of being involved in an accident. The same research indicates that volunteers tend to increase their risk of an accident if they are driving a car that is unfamiliar to them. According to the study, volunteers are better off using their own personal vehicles for a volunteer duty instead of borrowing a vehicle from the non-profit organization. Being unfamiliar with the vehicle you are driving makes it easier for you to make a mistake that could lead to an auto accident.

Non-Profits Should Check Insurance Coverage Carefully

Every non-profit organization that asks volunteers to drive as part of their regular duties needs to double check their car insurance policies to see who is covered and when. Most policies will cover any person who has been authorized to drive a company vehicle as long as they are driving for a work-related task. Commercial policies only apply as long as the company car is being driven for company business. Accidents that happen during personal use will not be the responsibility of the insurance company. Your insurance agent will be able to give you the exact details of your policy regarding volunteers driving company vehicles.

Government Protection for Volunteers

The federal government does provide some basic protection for volunteers. The federal Volunteer Protection Act covers volunteers from being sued if they are working within the stated guidelines of their volunteer position, if they have the appropriate certification, and if they are not being negligent at the time of the accident. Negligence is a broad category with several loopholes, so the protection is not as airtight as it may seem. The Volunteer Protection Act is not designed to protect volunteers while they are operating a motor vehicle, so it does not offer any protection in the case of a car accident.

How to Protect Yourself

You can take certain steps to protect yourself from a lawsuit stemming from an accident while you are acting as a volunteer. A relatively inexpensive umbrella policy for your personal car insurance will provide the additional protection you need if the non-profit agency you work for does not extend coverage to volunteers. Volunteer training can also provide some extra education that can keep you out of trouble if there is an accident. Shop around for the best price and coverage package if you expect to drive as part of your regular volunteer efforts in the near future.

Insurance Companies Not Likely to Raise Rates for Volunteers

The good news is that there are no recorded cases of car insurance companies raising a driver's rates simply because the driver is a volunteer. In fact, some states have made it illegal for car insurance companies to charge more for volunteers who drive as part of their volunteer efforts. This means that you can discuss your volunteer work openly with your insurance agent without worrying about the impact it might have on your current rates. Your agent will be able to help you figure out your best plan for insurance protection, even if it might mean switching to a new insurance company.