Bill Seeks To Protect Volunteers From Personal-Injury Lawsuits

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Newly passed federal legislation that would protect volunteers in schools and other nonprofit groups from most personal-injury suits will encourage more people to get involved in community service, according to its Republican backers.

The bill known as the Volunteer Protection Act seeks to prevent "sue happy" individuals from undermining the efforts of well-intentioned volunteers, say sponsors of the measure, which recently passed the Senate 99-1 and the House on a voice vote. President Clinton, though, has expressed reservations about the bill and has not indicated whether he will sign it.

"The litigation craze is hurting the spirit of volunteerism that is an integral part of American society," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. "How do we thank our volunteers? All too often, we drag them into court and subject them to needless and unfair lawsuits."

The bill would help reduce the cost of liability insurance for schools that have such policies, and protect those that don't, said Daniel W. Merenda, the president of the National Association of Partners in Education, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that promotes business and community involvement in schools.

"Overall, I think the bill is going to be very beneficial," Mr. Merenda said. "It will remove one more barrier to getting people involved in schools."

Other education groups agree that the measure would be nice to have on the books, but doubt that it will help draw masses of new volunteers.

"I don't know if it's going to attract [volunteers] any more so than they're attracted now," said Nicholas J. Penning, a policy specialist with the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria.

Volunteer Competition

Currently, volunteer-liability laws vary from state to state, said Perry A. Zirkel, an education law professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. In Pennsylvania, for instance, volunteers are already protected by a statute that exempts school officials from liability, he said.

The Volunteer Protection Act would shield a volunteer from liability if the person involved were acting within the scope of his or her volunteer activities, were properly licensed or certified if necessary, or had not willfully engaged in misconduct. Volunteers still could be held liable for criminal acts or gross negligence.

While NAPE has found an increase in the number of school volunteers and business partnerships in recent years, schools still have to compete with other agencies for volunteers, Mr. Merenda said.

The bill is "going to help when school districts and schools are going to do their recruitment," he said. "Some people are reluctant [to volunteer] because they don't know about liability issues."

The House and Senate passed the measure, S 543, in May and it was sent to President Clinton last week. White House officials could not say last week whether Mr. Clinton planned to sign the bill.

In a policy statement released last month, the administration said it supports the bill's intent, but raised concerns that plaintiffs would not be adequately protected and that the legislation's definition of a nonprofit organization encompasses too many groups.

The measure's backers hope to build on the momentum of the recent volunteer summit in Philadelphia, where Mr. Clinton and other dignitaries gathered to promote volunteer service by students and adults. ("Seeking To Turn Summit Promises Into Service," May 7, 1997.)

And if authorizing legislation for Mr. Clinton's proposed America Reads program passes Congress, it would put 1 million volunteers in schools to help tutor children who have fallen behind in their reading skills.

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