A Little Charity Volunteerism and a Little Malpractice Protection
In order to encourage volunteerism in the United States so that federal, state and community charity services can continue their important functions in our society, on June 18, 1997 President Clinton signed into law the “Volunteer Protection Act”. This Act is “to provide certain protections to volunteers, nonprofit organizations, and governmental entities in lawsuits based on the activities of volunteers.” The protection is described as
“no volunteer of a nonprofit organization or governmental entity shall be liable for harm caused by an act or omission of the volunteer on behalf of the organization or entity
if the volunteer was acting within the scope of the volunteer's responsibilities in the nonprofit organization or governmental entity at the time of the act or omission;
if appropriate or required, the volunteer was properly licensed, certified, or authorized by the appropriate authorities for the activities or practice in the State in which the harm occurred, where the activities were or practice was undertaken within the scope of the volunteer's responsibilities in the nonprofit organization or governmental entity;
the harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer.” Exceptions are detailed in the law.
In terms of protection of physicians who volunteer to work in charity, free medical clinics, 43 states and the District of Columbia have various charity immunity legislation and 12 of the states specifically refer to retired physicians in their law. 24 states have raised the negligence standard. Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York and Vermont have no laws, hence only the federal law would apply.
What does this all mean? It means that malpractice suits against doctors who volunteer to care for patients who are cared for in charity clinics will be limited to apply in many states only to those physicians whose acts represent gross negligence or are criminal acts. It means it will be more difficult or impossible for patients to win lawsuits against charity clinics or their physician volunteers.
As a volunteer unpaid physician, myself. participating in a local free clinic whose patients have no insurance or money to pay for healthcare, I wonder if my professional standards, responsibilities and risks should be less than a doctor who gets paid outside of charity care? I see no ethical explanation of why it should be different but I would be interested in reading what my visitors think about this subject. Is the argument for state and federal government to support volunteerism to charity a good enough rationale for these laws? If malpractice law suits are currently excessive, frivolous and at times unfair shouldn’t the goal be to change the regulations in general regarding how tort claims are filed and ajudicated but not to simply excuse the doctors who volunteer. ..Maurice