Proposal would protect post-disaster volunteers

Posted: October 30, 2013

TRENTON When a storm like Sandy strikes, money to rebuild is important, but so is manpower, says Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald.

One year after the hurricane's landfall, New Jersey can prepare to better meet its needs in future storms by passing a bill that would shield architects and engineers from liability while volunteering as safety inspectors, Greenwald (D., Camden) said at a Statehouse news conference Monday.

In the aftermath of disasters, "we need all the help we can get," said Greenwald, the bill's sponsor. "We should remove barriers that keep needed professional volunteers on the sidelines" after large-scale storms, which can overwhelm the disaster-response resources of municipalities, he said.

The bill - cosponsored by Amy Handlin (R., Monmouth) and Mila Jasey (D., Essex) - would protect volunteer architects and engineers from "potentially massive legal liability," Greenwald said, provided they are serving without compensation, at the request of a public safety official, and at the scene of a declared disaster within 90 days of the incident.

Similar "Good Samaritan" legislation has been passed in 26 other states, Greenwald said. He mentioned Alabama, which he said passed a law following Hurricane Katrina that allowed 200 professionals to inspect 7,000 buildings in Tuscaloosa after tornadoes hit in April 2011.

In New Jersey, Greenwald did not cite specific communities where a lack of inspectors had posed a problem after Sandy, but said "every community is hamstrung because of the property-tax crisis in this state." To cut costs, some municipalities share inspectors - a scenario that works well for everyday tasks, but not for disaster response, Greenwald said.

Speaking in support of the bill were Bob Thiel, president of the New Jersey Society of Professional Engineers, and Jack Purvis, president of the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Purvis said his organization had 100 members qualified to do inspections after Sandy, but "we cannot be deployed in our own state."

Shielding them from liability would "greatly decrease the time it takes to address reconstruction, which ultimately will get people back in homes and businesses at greater speed," Purvis said.

The bill would protect home and business owners by not barring claims against volunteers for acts that were wanton, willful, or grossly negligent, Greenwald said.

A message left with the state Division of Consumer Affairs was not returned Monday. The New Jersey League of Municipalities has not taken a position on the bill.

The bill was introduced in January, and remains in the Assembly Regulated Professions Committee.

"There were a lot of bills that were introduced after Sandy," Greenwald said. He said it took time to assess the damage and needs after the storm, as well as the number of available volunteers.

Greenwald said he intended for the bill to be taken up during the lame-duck session.

The chairman of the Regulated Professions Committee, Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D., Passaic), said Greenwald had not yet reached out to him about posting the bill.

"It sounds like a good bill, especially for people who are volunteering services," Giblin said. "They should have some protection so they don't get on the wrong side of the court system."

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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