Liability of Volunteers in Natural Disaster Emergencies.

AuthorBowal, Peter
PositionSpecial Report: Emergencies and the Law


Alberta has recently suffered several sudden, prominent, ruinous natural calamities: the 2012 wildfires in Slave Lake, the 2013 flood in southern Alberta, and the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray. The 2013 flood affected hundreds of thousands of people and took five lives. It is the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history with damages estimated at $6 billion. Provincial and federal governments leapt to the rescue. Military units were deployed, in addition to the Canadian Red Cross and many other civilian rescue organizations.

In Calgary alone, 2,500 volunteers joined in, some of whom were injured during the recovery. Three volunteers suffered chemical burns, were transported to hospital and were later billed for the ambulance ride. Alberta Health Services eventually decided not to bill any volunteers whose injury resulted from their participation in the flood cleanup, even without any formal policy to exempt them.

This article identifies some of the legal issues and laws pertaining to volunteers who serve in disaster relief efforts.

First Responders

Natural disasters are managed first at the local level by first responders such as medical professionals and hospitals, fire departments, the police, and municipalities. They are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence and the environment. They are police officers, firefighters, military personnel, paramedics, medical evacuation pilots, dispatchers, nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians and emergency managers. Physicians and other first responders benefit from explicit legislation that protects them from liability for negligence in their rescue work.

Legal Issues Facing Volunteers in Natural Emergencies

Who is a Volunteer?

The common law does not specifically define volunteers. The British Columbia Emergency Program Act requires a legally protected volunteer to be "registered by a local authority or the Provincial Emergency Program for the purpose of responding to a disaster or an emergency" [s. 1(1)]. This specifically includes these pre-registered "volunteers" in the class of persons who are protected from general liability in ordinary negligence while acting in good faith. Other "Good Samaritan" legislation, discussed below, does not specifically name volunteers as coming within this exemption from liability but they would most often be included in it.

Volunteers, by definition, do not receive any remuneration from an...

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