Arizona Business Magazine July/August 2011
Construction Companies Can Be Exposed To Lawsuits When Assisting The Government During An Emergency
Imagine that you own a construction company and one of your employees comes in and tells you that the two largest buildings in town have collapsed. You receive a phone call a few days later from a government official who informs you that the police and fire department need your construction company to send heavy equipment and demolition crews to the site of the collapsed buildings to help remove large pieces of debris in order to save people’s lives.
Some large construction companies in New York were faced with that exact situation after the Sept. 11 attacks. The construction companies that helped clean up the World Trade Center disaster site were responsible for removing one-and-a-half-million tons of debris that covered many city blocks. Before long, the workers who were removing the debris started getting sick, as did police officers and firefighters who were stationed at the disaster site. Many of them have filed lawsuits against numerous entities, including the construction companies that were called upon to help with the debris removal effort.
The construction companies failed in a recent attempt to dismiss the lawsuits on grounds that they were immune from liability because they responded to an emergency situation.
Any business that decides to help in an emergency must protect itself, or face the legal consequences of the almost inevitable mistakes and accidents that will happen. With careful planning and prudent oversight, you can protect your business from lawsuits related to its help in an emergency or disaster situation in the state of Arizona.
Arizona’s immunity statute
The statute A.R.S. § 26-314(A) provides immunity for the state of Arizona and its political subdivisions (i.e., counties, cities and other local governments) for the actions or inactions of its “emergency workers.” The statute states that “emergency workers” shall have the same immunities as agents of the state of Arizona and its political subdivisions performing similar work. The term “emergency worker” is defined in part as “any person who is … an officer, agent, or employee of this state or a political subdivision of this state and who is called on to perform or support emergency management activities or perform emergency management functions.” Therefore, the only way to be sure your business is immune from lawsuits related to its assistance to the state or city government in a disaster or emergency situation is to wait until the government “calls on” your business to provide help.
Your business must always operate as an “agent” of the government to be considered an “emergency worker” and maintain its immunity. Your business will be considered an agent of the government if the government has the right to control the conduct of your business as it performs its work. Thus, you should determine who is in charge of the emergency site, and you should offer assistance to that person. You should seek detailed instructions from the person in charge and make sure it is clear that your business is operating under that person’s authority.
Should your business enter into a contract with the government to perform emergency services, then the rules change significantly. The provisions of the statute would still apply; however, a business that enters into a contract with the government would be considered an independent contractor. An independent contractor is an “agent” only if the government instructs the independent contractor on “what to do, not how to do it.” Therefore, when your business enters into a contract to help the government in an emergency situation, you must make sure the contract provides your business with control over the process and/or methods that it uses to do its work.
Of course, the Arizona Legislature can amend the statute to include immunity for any business entity that renders assistance during an emergency. If businesses were provided with clear protection under the statute, there would be no need for them to worry about being an “agent” of the government, and it would persuade more businesses to render assistance to the government in an emergency.