Issues & AdvocacyGet Involved
In response to requests for assistance from the New York City Mayor’s office, as well as from other government officials in the New York metropolitan area, architects have expressed an absolute willingness to step forward and assist in the recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy. There is, however, a major impediment to lending that assistance, namely that New York State does not provide immunity from liability for volunteer services during a declared state of emergency, commonly called “Good Samaritan” protection.
AIA members have volunteered their services many times before to help communities recover after massive disasters such as the tornados in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, as well as Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, and the Northridge Earthquake. More than 300 architects and engineers in the New York area have already come forward and indicated a willingness to volunteer in the short term to inspect damaged property.
It’s natural to assume that such simple acts of charity can be performed with no real strings attached. Not so.
The enormous destruction caused by Sandy has overwhelmed the capacity of local building inspectors to verify whether or not damaged structures are safe for habitation. Architects are licensed to protect the “health, safety and welfare” of the public and would work under the direction of local emergency preparedness officials to speed up the inspection process, in order to get residents safely back into their homes, when that is an option.
However, while many architects already have professional liability insurance, that insurance may not cover any actions they take while acting as a “volunteer”. In recent years, architects have been trying to get New York State to change the law to cover “Good Samaritan” deeds, but the legislature has not acted. Without such protection, the potential of lawsuits prevents licensed professionals from serving as volunteers. The on-going devastation caused by Sandy should be a wakeup call. Unfortunately, prior efforts at reform following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and last year’s Hurricane Irene fell short. In a time of emergency, all available resources should be marshaled to assist the public.
Right now, however, people need help – and we are prepared and willing to assist. We have reached out to the Governor’s Office and the legislative leaders urging that action on this matter be addressed if a special session of the legislature is called.
To solve the problem on a national scale, Congress needs to pass a national Good Samaritan statute. One place to start is with the “Good Samaritan Protection for Construction, Architectural and Engineering Volunteers Act” (H.R. 1145), sponsored and introduced in March 2011 by Rep. David Reichert (R-WA). Reichert’s bill would help protect construction companies, architectural and engineering firms and their employees from liability, except for gross negligence or willful misconduct, when they volunteer to provide emergency assistance in response to a declared emergency or disaster, without expectation of compensation.
We live in an increasingly fragile world coping with fragile economies across a spectrum of regions and geographies. Having trained volunteers providing immediate help to the afflicted can frequently make the difference between quick economic recovery and harmful delay.
Kelly Hayes McAlonie is President of the American Institute of Architects, New York State