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2 competing bills in Utah Senate would curb liability of volunteers

Utah will need upward of 50,000 volunteers to put on the 2002 Winter Games.

But what if one of them caused an accident?And, what about the millions of hours of service that volunteers give a year to nonprofit agencies, doing everything from delivering meals to building homes in Utah. Who is liable if something goes wrong?

State lawmakers have drafted not one but two bills to address immunity for volunteers. Tuesday, a Senate committee favorably approved both of them, sending them to the Senate floor for further debate.

It's rare to have bills competing like "two horses in a horse race," said Sen. Nathan Tanner, chairman of the Senate Human Services Standing Committee, which heard SB54 and SB157.

The sponsors, Sen. Craig Taylor, R-Kaysville, and Sen. Scott Howell, D-Sandy, are also co-sponsors of one another's bills.

Both bills would cut the amount of liability insurance that nonprofit agencies must carry from $250,000 to $25,000.

Nathan Alder, who serves as a volunteer legal adviser for the Utah Nonprofit Association, said most nonprofits don't realize they need insurance coverage to protect themselves from the actions of volunteers.

He said legislation like Howell's SB157 would bring the insurance to an affordable level for non-profits.

Taylor and Howell agree their bills have the same intent: to protect volunteers.

But Taylor's bill goes one step beyond Howell's - protecting independent volunteers who aren't protected by their association.

The Utah Trial Lawyer's Association opposed both bills. Spokesman Ralph Dewsnup said the legislation leaves those hurt by volunteers without recourse to collect damages.

Lobbyist Craig Moody said Taylor's bill would be the most restrictive legislation of its kind in the country and shifts the personal responsibility from volunteers.

"The victim is going to pay the price," Moody said.

Dewsnup said Taylor's bill would immunize anyone acting in a voluntary way, like a neighbor who promised to watch your house while you were on vacation and left the oven on, burning it down.

"The constitutional problems to this bill are large," Dewsnup said. "The voiceless victims aren't protected."

But Kristi Johnson, director of LifeCare Services, which provides assistance to elderly and disabled people who are homebound, supports some type of legislation.

LifeCare had 7,000 volunteers last year who provided one-third more hours of service than the agency's entire paid staff.

"It's critical we're able to provide this level of protection to our volunteers," Johnson said, adding that in her seven years at LifeCare no volunteer has ever hurt a client.