Protecting against liability

Tl;dr for teams who have thought about this and made provisions, what do you have in place to protect your team and its members/associates in the event of an accident (particularly in the shop)?

We’ve had a couple parents/mentors join the team in the last year who are raising a concern over how formally protected the team and individual people would be if we had an accident in the shop. Some background:

  • We meet at a school which has liability insurance, but don’t have a faculty member present at most of our meetings so our coverage is somewhat uncertain (we’re asking into this).
  • A good portion of our tools are not owned by the school
  • We’ve recently formed a separate 501©(3) for the team.

Some questions:

  • For those teams that have an insurance policy under their own (non-profit) company, did you have to do anything special to get protection for your mentors (such as somehow making them employees)?
  • One of our mentors has some industry experience in machine shops and says that the usual practice there is to hire an external service to do all the training, so that service would be liable for any observed deficiency/negligence in training. Is this a concern for FIRST teams?
  • Generally, what policies do you have around student and mentor tool use?
  • Do you have any other team policies to protect your interests?

We’re meeting with our own legal counsel and will be meeting with our school’s insurance representative, but I was asked to get some idea of what other teams do, to give us some context.

Liability Insurance has been discussed at length on these forums, but what we keep hearing is that if somebody gets badly injured, everybody associated is going to get sued anyway. This is what we’re trying to avoid/mitigate.


We carry our own liability for our team. Since we work in an off site facility, the school refuses to cover us under their liability (I would be interested to hear a legal opinion on this). I believe we carry a $1 million liability for all our meetings. This is done through our non-profit booster club.

We require all members to pass basic safety quizzes before even touching a machine. They are then cleared for machines based on practical tests. Each member must be signed off by the team Safety Captain (student) and a Coach (adult). Even after this training and certification, all students must be overseen buy an adult mentor when using a tool larger than a power drill.

We have every member sign a “don’t sue us” form, but I don’t don’t think we have discussed formal liability with our school.

We have liability forms people have to sign before using power tools, and I think we’re covered by the school. We teach basic safety practices around everything. The worst that happens is somebody get a little cut or something. I don’t think we’ve had a serious injury in the history of our team.

Our team is an incorporated 501©(3) public charity in California (since 2010). We obtain our liability insurance ($1M per occurrence, $2M aggregate) from Nonprofits Insurance Alliance of California (NIAC). We have Improper Sexual Conduct (ISC) coverage as well, which requires background checks of each of our mentors. (Essentially the same check required by FIRST’s Youth Protection Program).

Our members (registered in TIMS) are protected by our policy. We do train (certify) students for use of power tools. We also are strict about “horseplay” in our facility and at competitions.

We’ve been fortunate to not have any incidents or injuries (beyond minor cuts). Still, I’m not comfortable what constitutes “negligent acts” in the highly litigious environment in California.

We have forms that are signed, we have a formal training program for every power tool taught by the ‘shop teacher’, and there must be a teacher* present at all times. We are a school team.

*Some mentors are approved by the Board of Ed as Substitutes. Even though we never want to sub - we have other jobs we need to attend to - we are then school employees, not just on paper but in fact. And covered by their liability insurance.

If I had any personal liability, I wouldn’t volunteer. It’s a valuable program, but not worth my entire life and estate.

One of the main reasons 4212 is associated with 4H is the insurance. I heard from one of the physics professors here at the host college that the legal agreement with the team is highly dependent on the liability insurance provided by 4H. Plus they provide a bit funding.

Perhaps you guys could look into a similar youth group to provide insurance if the school insurance falls through. However I don’t remember insurance ever being an issue when I was a team member with 766.

We are also a 501©3 and happen to meet in a machine shop. We pull our insurance through the national machinist’s association for around $800 a year. We used the same agent that insures the company that lends us space to help us work things out and it has gone better than I could have expected.

We run every student through a formal safety program and do not allow any unsupervised power tool usage. The fastest way to never be allowed near a tool again is to use one without asking a mentor or not having a mentor supervising. I do not joke around with this.

Finally we use a team contract. It has clauses such as I will not be at the machine shop when the team is not meeting and I will not engage in horse play around the shop. Both the student and the student’s parent signs it every year. It leaves the team the right to ask a student to leave the team for behavior issues including unsafe behavior in the shop.

FYI, those are generally not enforceable. You can’t promise anything and call it a contract (so says my son the EE/lawyer all the time).

Our team is setup like the OP and we’ve been tossing around the same issue. Is $800 annually about right for $1M of liability coverage? Any team in TX care to share the costs and source? Maybe PM me?


If you find it too expensive to get your own insurance, I’ve heard of teams associating with 4H (as the previous poster mentioned), Explorer Scouts. or paying for a rider on their school’s policy.

I am not a lawyer and particularly not your lawyer. So take this for what is worth as free internet opinion.

This varies state by state. But generally parents cannot sign away the right to sue & under 18s can’t sign contracts. A well written waiver will include risks so at least they will not be able to say they didn’t know the risks. What works in one state, may not in another. So travel out of state can be an issue as well. Bottom line: something like this really needs the advice of a lawyer in your state.

Volunteers generally are well protected under federal law. (If you are compensated in any way this doesn’t apply to you) But if somebody is seriously injured, the lawyers often start off suing everybody. It can be expensive getting to point where you are dismissed from the case. Maintaining your own insurance is a good idea. You can get this through home owners or rental insurance.

Yeah those decisions (and what is in the waiver) are up to our school right now. They modeled the form off of their general form that they use for other clubs or events but, like you say, it is nearly impossible to make anything fool proof.

And for what it’s worth, the way my insurance agent explained it, I could basically have cheaper car and home owners Insurance by having an umbrella policy as well (which then costs a little, so it probably all comes out even in the end). And that umbrella policy covers me in situations that the home owners and car insurance wouldn’t. That doesn’t help the team or the school very much, but it is good for me, as a backup.

So we ran down the 4H route for a few years but it got pricey per student. We were at $35/student + I want to say some fee per mentor to get us background checked. (I could be completely off base here, it has been a few years since I wrote that check). I did see our last total was $600 for when we had ~15-20 kids on the team.

4H fees grow per student you have on the team, and they also have other obligations to 4H at least with the way they set it up in our county.

This is a very state- and locality-specific thing; in South Carolina, 4-H dues are $10 per kid (our kids pay), mentors must be background checked but aren’t charged for it, and at least in our county we don’t have anything mandatory (though I’m always looking for ways to help raise the tide and thus lift all the boats).

Thanks, everyone, for your comments and experiences on this issue.

I have been following this thread with some interest because we have just re-organized as a 501©3 and now need to purchase our own liability insurance. I have a couple quotes, but they all seem high to me. Would anyone who has been down this road, and who likes the insurance deal they have…please PM me with their provider, so I can potentially find a better fit?