How Can I help a neighbor without creating a potential claim against me if something goes wrong?
Great question, and an important one.
Whether you’re participating in block clubs, watching your elderly and disabled neighbors, or merely paying service to your neighborhoods, if you’re a resident motivated by civic duty you may ask whether you can be held legally liable as a result of your volunteerism.
For example, the Cranford Avenue block club wants its members to feel comfortable shoveling some neighbors’ sidewalks after heavy snowfalls. In late spring, many residents living next to houses in foreclosure have asked whether it’s appropriate for them to mow the grass until the home moves into better hands. Often our volunteers wish to be insulated from liability with a release or other legal document, and they come to the city for direction.
I’m energized and grateful for the sense of civic duty that’s so abundant in Lakewood. We live in such close proximity with one another that every small problem — and every act of kindness — can be magnified to a great degree. A city initiative launched last year, Volunteer Lakewood, further supports and encourages these good deeds, accounting for the fact that we do best when we enhance the collaboration between government, local organizations and residents to provide needed services.
But how can you protect yourself? While there’s no easy answer, here’s some guidance.
People are sued, fairly or unfairly, all the time. Our review reflects that it’s extraordinarily rare for anyone to be sued for performing an act of volunteerism, and even rarer for those suits to be successful. In any event, state and local legislatures have found the need to further shield volunteers from personal liability. (For example, Ohio has a “good Samaritan law” protecting citizens responding to emergencies, and federal law protects most volunteers serving governments and nonprofits.)
Despite these protective laws, stranger things have happened than neighbors making claims against neighbors. So here are a few pointers on minimizing risk:
1. Ask for permission to help. People take greater ownership of mishaps when they’ve authorized the work to be performed by a volunteer. If the work is more involved than, say, shoveling snow, consider using a release (see below). And if you’re doing the work at a neighboring property, get permission to go onto the property first. (For help locating property owners, call the city’s Division of Housing and Building.)
2. When you volunteer your time, be careful. Use the same level of caution you’d use on your own property so you don’t act negligently in the first place.
3. Consider developing a good release if your efforts are organized. Block clubs, which are groups of citizens looking to protect their neighborhoods and develop a sense of togetherness, and other residents organizing projects on their streets may be wise to use a release to further shield volunteers from liability.
While we can’t provide a general release, organizers may wish to develop something adding a layer of protection for any work done on behalf of others.
4. Use the city’s mediation program to resolve disputes. In the event of a claim, you may wish to use the city's mediation program, hosted by the Law Department, to try to resolve things amicably. Both residents would be encouraged to show up, and the parties’ willingness to engage in voluntary discussions is essential. The service is free and usually very effective. Call the law department at 216-529-6030 for more information.
5. Maintain a policy of homeowners’ (or renters’) insurance. Claims that do occur between neighbors can likely be resolved with your insurer, if not privately, even if the activity occurs outside the boundaries of your property. Your greatest risk might just be the payment of your insurance deductible.
Because these types of neighbor-to-neighbor disputes appear to be so extremely rare, it’s my belief that the threat of liability should never deter us from volunteering. Perhaps this additional information will add to our recognition that service to our neighbors has a vital place in Lakewood’s social fabric.