Bill: Protect rescuers
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
December 11, 2012
Rep. Keith Gingery is sponsoring a bill that would make it nearly impossible to sue search and rescue volunteers individually.
House Bill 35, recently filed with the state legislative services office, would add search and rescue workers to the list of nonprofit volunteers who are exempt from being named personally in civil lawsuits.
State law “made it way too easy to go after volunteers,” the Jackson Republican said Monday.
Existing laws put search and rescue volunteers on the same level as sheriff’s deputies, and volunteers typically work under the supervision of the sheriff. But Gingery said there should be a distinction between search and rescue volunteers and sheriff’s deputies.
“What we want to do is keep our current volunteers and make sure we’re able to attract new ones,” Gingery said. Volunteers “don’t understand that they could be liable.”
The bill the Teton County lawmaker has drafted would raise the threshold for naming individual volunteers in a lawsuit, shifting them into a category for nonprofits, which are immune from liability if something goes wrong in a rescue. Volunteers would be on equal ground with volunteer firefighters.
“For a nonprofit, you’re almost completely immune,” Gingery said. “There’s almost no way to get at them.”
Gingery hopes the legislation will fix a situation that played out in a lawsuit filed last year against search and rescue volunteers and elected officials in Teton County, Idaho, and Teton County, Wyo.
In that suit, which was settled this fall, the family of a skier who died near Grand Targhee Resort sued public agencies in the two counties.
They also named Ray Shriver, one of the volunteers who participated in the rescue efforts. Shriver died early this year in a search and rescue helicopter crash.
“Ray Shriver was completely a volunteer,” Gingery said. “He had no relationship with the sheriff’s office. Suddenly, here was his name on a lawsuit.”
Under the draft legislation, sheriff’s deputies could still be sued.
“If you show their actions are willful and wanton, you could go after them,” he said.
Gingery’s full bill can be found at Legisweb.state.wy.us. The Republican legislator already has filed seven bills, the most from any individual lawmaker so far.
The 2013 legislative session convenes Jan. 8.