One of the risks that we accept in any emergency operation is that of liability exposure. We live in a litigious society where lawsuits are common, particularly in the aftermath of disaster. But can we allow the threat of a potential future lawsuit to stop us from doing the right thing? I like to think that most of us would say no. The city of Petaluma would not agree.
In 2010, a CERT volunteer driving home from training severely injured a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The attorney for the pedestrian named the city in the lawsuit on the basis that the driver was carrying city issued radio equipment used in the training. As is usual in many cases of liability, the city attorney opted to settle the case rather than risk a larger judgment in a trial. The case was settled in excess of $1 million.
As a result of this lawsuit, the city of Petaluma has withdrawn sponsorship from the CERT program. The program has been in existence since 2006 and has been funded entirely by grants to the Petaluma Fire Department. According to the program coordinator, withdrawal of sponsorship affects FEMA certification of the graduates and registration as State Disaster Service Workers, a designation which provides Workers Compensation coverage during disaster operations.
Legal experts familiar with the case believe that the city made an error in not litigating the lawsuit. There is existing legal precedent that does not hold an employer liable for accidents that occur while an employee is traveling to or from work, suggesting that the city could have prevailed had the case gone to trial. Even if this is not the case, the decision to withdraw sponsorship for the CERT program to prevent future lawsuits is hard to justify.
The real issue here is the mistaken belief that volunteers create a liability exposure that exceeds their value to the community. This excuse has been used on occasion to prevent the startup of programs such as CERT. The simple fact is that trained volunteers are infinitely more valuable to a community at the time of crisis than emergent volunteers with no training.
Do volunteers create a liability exposure? Of course they do, in the same way that any employee does. However, that exposure can be reduced through a well-documented program and a clear definition of what constitutes a volunteer’s job. This is merely good project management and there are ample tools to guide the development of such a program.
So don’t let the threat of liability exposure stop you from starting volunteer programs. Assess and mitigate the risks as much as possible but stop using them as an excuse for inaction.