Helping After a Disaster: Will Your Insurance Protect You?

By Beth Buczynski Personal Finance NerdWallet.com

Helping during a disaster is admirable, but it could have risks of its own.

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Let’s say you use your home or vehicle to help victims of a disaster and accidentally cause damage or hurt someone. Could your insurance company deny a claim because you were volunteering?

“It’s a question more people ought to ask,” says Mike O’Malley, senior vice president of public policy at the American Insurance Association. He says homeowners and auto insurance policies generally cover volunteer activity, with some important exclusions.

Here are some common good-Samaritan scenarios and how they may impact your insurance.

Your car is damaged as you help with rescue efforts

If you have collision and comprehensive insurance, often referred to as full coverage car insurance, you’ll likely be covered.

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“Common sense still prevails, of course,” says Lynne McChristian, catastrophe response director for the Insurance Information Institute in Florida. “If it’s determined someone intentionally drove a vehicle into high water with no regard for the risk, an insurer may need to assess whether that was necessary or careless behavior before they pay a claim.”

» MORE: Understanding collision and comprehensive insurance

You cause damage or injury while in your boat

“One place that people need to be a little careful of — and we’ve seen this a lot in Houston [after Hurricane Harvey] — is personal watercraft being used for rescue efforts,” O’Malley says.

Homeowners insurance may cover incidents involving your boat while it’s on your property, he says. Once you take it out on the water, you need a separate boat liability policy.

State laws generally don’t require you to have boat insurance. But if you don’t have a policy and you cause a problem, you won’t have insurance to cover it.

» MORE: An in-depth guide to boat insurance

Someone is hurt in or damages your home

Since you aren’t renting the space and displaced people sheltering in your home have your permission to be there, it’s likely your homeowners insurance would pay claims, says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

Volunteer liability and good Samaritan laws

A person you help could take legal action against you if he or she is injured in your vehicle or on your property. But the federal Volunteer Protection Act and various state laws may protect you if your volunteer act inadvertently causes harm.

“States have laws on their books to help people do ‘the right thing for the right reason’ without being hampered by concerns over being sued,” McChristian says.

These protections are usually referred to as good Samaritan laws. They vary by state; some focus on legal immunity after giving first aid or medical care after an accident.

Good Samaritan laws generally hold that you can’t be sued if something goes wrong while you’re assisting in an emergency. The common caveat is you must have been acting in a “reasonably prudent” manner.

Tips for reducing liability when you volunteer

Know your insurance: Understand what your home, auto or business policy covers and what it doesn’t, such as the use of a watercraft. Talk with your insurer if it’s unclear. If you’re a nonprofit board member, for example, your personal insurance policies probably won’t apply, so ask about the organization’s liability insurance coverage.

Don’t take payment: If you profit from the use of your vehicle, home or services, it’s no longer considered volunteering and could void coverage from your personal insurance.

Don’t be reckless: Don’t intentionally put people and property in danger. Insurance doesn’t cover intentional acts.

Work with a volunteer organization: Well-known organizations such as the Red Cross have volunteer handbooks that explain their liability insurance and what it covers.

Expand your coverage: If you volunteer often, you may want an umbrella insurance policy to expand your liability coverage.

Remember the legal risk: Even with good Samaritan laws, you could still get sued if something goes wrong while you’re volunteering. Insurance typically pays for legal defense, so it could come in handy during the litigation process, O’Malley says.

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