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Policy Statement 536 - Emergency Responder Legislation

Approved by the Infrastructure and Research Policy Committee on May 1, 2014

Approved by the Public Policy Committee on May 9, 2014

Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 13, 2014

Policy

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) supports federal and state emergency responder legislation to prevent lawsuits against engineering entities for on-site conditions that are entirely outside their scope of work or control and that recognizes the intense and time-sensitive decision-making process required during the emergency response period.

Issue

Good Samaritan Laws, serve to protect only unpaid volunteers from liability for work performed during declared state or national disasters. In contrast, Emergency Responder Legislation is designed to protect those who are hired to provide services in response to disasters. Emergency Responder Legislation would provide civil engineering entities protection from lawsuits aimed to make engineers responsible for activities outside the scope of work, or the scope of professional services, and protection from lawsuits related to decisions that are made based on limited information and limited time during the disaster emergency response period.  

Engineering entities are often relied upon in times of disasters and emergencies to offer expertise and assist public officials in mitigating the effects of disasters.  Engineers may assess the safety of structures that emergency responders such as police officers, firefighters, and other rescue workers need to enter.  Civil engineering professionals also mitigate conditions that threaten life and property.

Engineering entities have answered these calls following natural and man-made disasters.  Their work is performed in challenging conditions with limited information and without the benefit of ample time to evaluate the condition of buildings and other infrastructure elements. Professional engineers have played a vital role in recovery efforts, whether they worked as volunteers or paid contractors.
       
One example of an inequitable lawsuit is the litigation against structural engineers arising out of the rescue, recovery, and debris removal operation in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC).  The immediate response by the engineering community in providing structural consulting services at Ground Zero contributed to perhaps the largest recovery and site cleanup in modern history.  Structural engineers were hired to assess the structural stability of the surrounding buildings and the massive debris pile that in areas reached the height of a ten-story building. The engineers performed this task successfully as no serious injury or fatality was ever linked to their work at the WTC Site.  Unfortunately, there are numerous lawsuits against these engineering entities not pertaining to their work as professional engineers, but rather based on claims by a significant number of plaintiffs who allege illness due to purported toxic exposures.  Structural engineers ought not be involved in these lawsuits, as issues of air quality or claimed toxic exposures are outside of the engineers’ scope of work.    

Rationale 

This legislation will ensure that engineering entities will be willing, available and able to respond to future emergencies without fear of assuming unwarranted liability.  The engineering community is committed to public safety and professional integrity, but their responsibility to the public can only extend to the areas in which they are knowledgeable.  Litigation regarding alleged health effects from work at Ground Zero may prevent engineers from aiding in future catastrophic situations where their expertise could be necessary and essential.  ASCE should promote common-sense change so that engineers in the United States will be able to step up in the future and provide necessary expertise without putting their businesses or personal assets at risk.    

ASCE Policy Statement 536

First Approved in 2011