Legal protections for youth sports volunteers in Massachusetts

Although participating as a volunteer in a youth sports organization can be very rewarding, the nature of youth sports carries obvious risks of injuries to the participants. Unfortunately, these injuries sometimes lead to lawsuits against the coaches, officials, and organizers involved in youth sports leagues. If you are involved as a volunteer in youth sports in Massachusetts, you should be aware that there are legal protections available against liability for injuries that occur during youth sports events.

Liability waivers

One of the best ways to guard against legal liability is by having the parents of all participants sign a liability waiver before their child takes part in any practices or games. Unlike many states, Massachusetts courts will enforce liability waivers signed by a parent on behalf of a child (the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made this clear in the 2002 case of Sharon v. City of Newton). The waiver should state, in substance, that the parent releases the youth sports organization, its coaches, assistant coaches, officials, officers, and all adult volunteers from any claims arising out the child’s participation in the sport. If you are a youth sports volunteer, check with your youth sports organization to be sure that it has a waiver program in place; if it does not, suggest that the organization contact a lawyer for help in implementing a waiver program.

State statutory protection

The Massachusetts legislature has enacted statutes that can protect youth volunteers if a liability waiver has not been signed. Chapter 231, §85V of the Massachusetts General Laws provides immunity from tort liability for any non-profit association conducting a sports or sailing program, and also protects any volunteer officer, director, trustee, or member of that association. In addition, Chapter 231, §85W protects any volunteer who serves as an officer, director or trustee of any nonprofit charitable organization;  youth sports organizations are generally found to qualify as charitable organizations within the meaning of this statute.

Federal statutory protection

Federal law can also play a role in protecting youth sports volunteers. In 1997, Congress enacted the Volunteer Protection Act, which is codified starting at 42 U.S.C. §14501.  This act provides as follows:

…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—

(1)  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…

This act has also been held by the Courts to apply to youth sports volunteers.

For more information

The laws and statutes covered here do contain some exceptions, definitions, and qualifications. If you are a youth sports volunteer, and are facing a claim or a lawsuit due to a personal injury sustained by a participant (or want to take steps to guard against a claim), please consult an attorney to understand your rights, and the defenses that may be available to you. Contact Kevin Hensley at khensley@bglaw.com, or by phone, 617.391.4114.