Approved by the Infrastructure and Research Policy Committee March 31, 2011
Approved by the Public Policy Committee on May 13, 2011
Adopted by the Board of Direction July 30, 2011
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) supports federal and state emergency responder legislation to prevent lawsuits against engineering firms for on-site conditions that are entirely outside their assigned responsibility or control and recognizes the intense and time-driven decision-making process required during the emergency response period.
Unlike Good Samaritan Laws, which protect only unpaid volunteers from liability for work performed during state or national disasters, emergency responder legislation would provide design professionals immunity from lawsuits that attempt to make engineers responsible for activities outside their scope of work as well as those related to decisions that are made based on limited information and limited time available for decisions during the emergency response period.
Engineering firms are often called on in times of disasters and emergencies to assist public officials. Engineers assess the safety of structures that police officers, firefighters, and other rescue workers need to enter. They also mitigate conditions that threaten life and property.
Engineering firms have answered this call following terrorist attacks. Working in challenging conditions with limited information and without the benefit of time in order to evaluate the condition of buildings and other structures, 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. 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. They 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 firms not pertaining to their work as professional engineers, but rather based on claims by over 10,000 plaintiffs who allege illness due to purported toxic exposures. Structural engineers should not be involved in these lawsuits, as issues of air quality or claimed toxic exposures were outside of their scope of work.
This legislation will ensure that engineering firms will be available and able to respond to future emergencies. The engineering community is committed to public safety and professional integrity, but their responsibility to the public can only extend to the areas about 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