Subject to certain exceptions, individual volunteers are ordinarily afforded protection from any personal civil liability which may arise against them as a result of their actions as a volunteer. But what about the volunteer organisation for which the volunteer was acting? Does this immunity extend to the organisation itself such that it is not vicariously liable for the actions of its volunteers?

In an interesting decision recently handed down by the District Court of Queensland inGoodhue v Volunteer Marine Rescue Association Incorporated [2014] QDC 29, the court has clarified the scope of section 39(1) of the Civil Liability Act 2003 (Qld) and has found that in circumstances where a volunteer organisation is vicariously liable for the conduct of its volunteers, the protection afforded to individual volunteers does extend to provide protection to the organisation itself.

Facts

The plaintiff was the owner of a vessel which he anchored in an area known as “Marine Stadium” at Southport in about July or August 2003. The plaintiff went overseas on 11 August 2003. On 25 October 2003, after receiving a report the plaintiff’s vessel was “dragging anchor” and was drifting towards another vessel, authorised agents of the defendant, the Volunteer Marine Rescue Association, boarded the plaintiff’s vessel after receiving police approval and proceeded to re-anchor the vessel. Approximately two weeks after the plaintiff’s vessel was re-anchored, the plaintiff returned from overseas and discovered his vessel had run aground and that damage had been caused to the vessel and its contents.

The plaintiff alleged that the defendant volunteer organisation had breached the duty of care it owed to him because its authorised agents moved his vessel without permission and re-anchored it too close to the shore, which he claimed caused his vessel to run aground.

Decision

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim and found that the defendant and its authorised agents had not acted negligently. The court found that when the defendant intervened and re-anchored the plaintiff’s vessel to avoid it causing damage to other vessels, the defendant assumed a duty of care to do so competently and to take reasonable care. The court did not accept the plaintiff’s submission that this duty extended to ensuring the vessel remained securely in its new position and that the owner of the vessel was contacted. It was the court’s conclusion that the defendant did not breach its duty as the defendant’s authorised agents did competently re-anchor the boat and left the vessel in no worse of a situation than they had found it in. Further, the plaintiff had not excluded the possibility that the vessel was interfered with at some time between the defendant re-anchoring it and the plaintiff discovering it had been grounded.

Despite finding that the defendant and its authorised agents had not acted negligently, the court went on to consider the submission put forward by the plaintiff that a volunteer organisation should be held vicariously liable for the actions of its volunteers on the basis that the protection afforded by section 39(1) of the Civil Liability Act 2003 (Qld) is directed specifically at individual volunteers and not the volunteer organisation itself. The court ultimately rejected this argument and followed the decision of Commonwealth of Australia v Griffiths [2007] NSWCA 370 to find that the defendant, a volunteer organisation, who would ordinarily be vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of its authorised agents, should be protected by any immunity available to the actual wrongdoer.

Key points

In affording individual volunteers protection from liability, the Civil Liability Act 2003 (Qld) is silent as to whether this protection applies also to volunteer organisations. This decision acts to provide greater certainty to volunteer organisations that the courts are willing to extend the scope of the protection beyond just individual volunteers to also include volunteer organisations.

Michael Donnelly