NY Court: Volunteers can't sign away their rights

It’s true that when you start a new job, you often sign a lot of papers that talk about waivers and rights. Maybe you don’t understand all of them. Maybe you believe signing them is just part of getting and keeping a job.

For the most part, you’re not wrong. Many new employees sign at-will employment contracts that contain confidentiality agreements, non-compete agreements, exclusive employment agreement, and so on.

But the New York Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that discussed limits on a portion of such agreements. In Richardson v. Island Harvest, the court ruled that a signed “volunteer agreement” that limits the liability of a nonprofit for damages from personal injury is without merit.

The details of the case

In January 2012, Sean Richardson began working as a volunteer for Island Harvest, a local hunger relief nonprofit on Long Island, New York. In July 2012, Richardson signed an agreement in which he agreed to hold the nonprofit harmless if he were injured while acting as a volunteer.

Richardson was allegedly injured by a forklift driven by an employee of the nonprofit in October 2013. In September 2014, Richardson sued to recover personal injury damages. The first filing by Island Harvest failed to mention the volunteer agreement, so their lawyers asked to amend their answer to Richardson’s charges so they could add the agreement.

Justices agreed that while Island Harvest should be able to amend its answer to the charges, in this case it doesn’t matter because the amendment is devoid of merit.

Exonerating the employer from future liability

The court ruled that it has long found that public policy is not served if employers seek to exonerate or limit themselves from liability for future negligence by the organization or its employees.

The court cited a decision that is more than a century old when it said that if employers could contract away their responsibilities, it would encourage laxity or indifference on their part to safeguard against the loss of life and limb.

In this specific case, the court ruled that these public policy considerations apply to volunteer employees as well as paid employees.

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