In this age of litigation, liability and what some call panic, the threat of being sued has reached a level that worries many suburban Maryland volunteers.
Dave Brown, executive director of the Prince George's Volunteer Health Clinic, said liability concerns have "virtually shut the door of volunteer agencies to many people who want to come in."
Others involved with recruiting say volunteers are worried.
Sylvia McPherson, executive director of Montgomery County Soccer Inc., said that in recent years questions from coaches about their liability have increased. As a result, last year Montgomery Soccer joined the Maryland Youth Soccer Association, an affiliate of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, which obtains liability insurance for all member leagues.
"It's a new concern," said McPherson, who has worked with the local soccer program for the past 13 years. "It's a kind of panic."
In an organization like Montgomery Soccer, she said, a lack of volunteers would be disastrous: More than 1,200 volunteers make it possible for 6,700 children to participate.
Nonetheless, some prospective volunteers are afraid. Afraid that the organization they are asked to serve is not adequately insured. Afraid that they might be sued as individuals if there is an accident. Afraid that even if such a suit is dismissed, they would face costly legal expenses.
"If a parent sued the nursery school because of an accident, they might sue us too because we are on the board," said Jane Lyder, a Bethesda lawyer who with her husband Alan Palisoul works as treasurers of a cooperative nursery school attended by their 3-year-old daughter.
Yet, the couple said they will remain on the nursery school board and two other community boards for now. "But we are really wondering if the risk is worth it," Lyder said.
Are such concerns justified, or are they part of a climate of fear, fueled by news reports of huge personal injury settlements? A 1983 incident at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville has sparked concern, especially among those asked to serve on community pool boards.
In that case, Adam Lloyd, who suffered a diving accident that left him a quadriplegic, sued the community center for more than $11 million, the amount of liability insurance the center had at that time. In 1986, the center's insurance company paid a structured, out-of-court settlement of $4.1 million.
Under Maryland's doctrine of charitable immunity, which dates from 1885, the center was ruled to be a charitable organization and as such, liable for damages only up to the amount of its insurance. Lester Kaplan, the center's executive director, said that no board members of the organization were named in the suit, and that the center has had no difficulty recruiting members for its board of directors since.
But prospective members of other community swimming pool boards are cautious. One potential board member of a pool in Bethesda, for instance, refused to serve because he thought the pool recreation association and its management company were underinsured, even though the combined liability total was $3 million.
Another member of the same pool board said he would not continue to serve unless he was able to obtain personal liability insurance. Such insurance, often called an "umbrella" policy, or a personal catastrophe policy, has become increasingly popular. Umbrella policies, taken out in addition to homeowner and automobile insurance, add an extra $1 million in liability coverage, and cover every member of the family living in the home. The policies usually run from $75 to $150 a year.
Bob Hunter, president of the national Insurance Consumer Organization, recommended umbrella policies even though he said suits against volunteers are rare.
"For a few dollars, you can get millions in coverage," he explained. But he cautioned buyers to read their policies carefully to make sure they are covered for nonprofit volunteer activities.
Maryland and the federal government also are moving to grant some liability relief to volunteers.
In Maryland's 1987 legislative session, several bills that granted limited immunity to so-called field volunteers, coaches in sports leagues, for example, were passed and signed into law by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Other new laws grant limited immunity to volunteer directors and board officers. And another new law affecting volunteers of nonprofit charitable institutions was strongly supported by the United Way.
As a rule, these laws give volunteers limited immunity unless they are proved to be "grossly negligent," charges most experts agree are difficult to prove. Under the provisions of the laws, volunteers are only immune from paying damages beyond the amount of insurance they hold.
One of the problems, explained Tony Gianforti of the United Way of Central Maryland, one of the agencies that pressed for state legislation to protect state volunteers, is that some nonprofit agencies have difficulties obtaining liability insurance for their directors and officers.