Contractors urge Congress to approve liability protection bill

Four construction contractors testified before a Senate subcommittee Nov. 8, urging Congress to approve legislation that would limit the risk of liability that contractors face when responding to declared federal, state and local emergencies or disasters.

The contractors, some of whom were among the first to help stop flooding in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, told members of the Superfund and Waste Management Subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee what had to be done after the levees broke.

“We knew that the trial lawyers were out there, but we simply could not take the time to imagine that someone would sue us for trying to save the city,” said Warren Perkins, vice president of risk management for New Orleans-based Boh Brothers Construction. “Now it is time for Congress to give the contractors, working hard to revive New Orleans and the remainder of the Gulf Coast, some limited measure of protection from unlimited tort liability simply for being there to meet the need.”

Private construction contractors are an important part of recovery efforts after national disasters, according to the Associated General Contractors of America, which is supporting the Gulf Coast Recovery Act, a bill Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced Sept. 22. Contractors were quick to arrive on the scene of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and worked hand-in-hand with federal, state and local officials on rescue, recovery and clean-up efforts for most of the following year, the group points out. Multi-billion-dollar class-action lawsuits have been filed against all four of the contractors that supervised the 9/11 cleanup.

The Gulf Coast Recovery Act would provide limited protection to government contractors from the tort liability that might otherwise arise from their work for disaster relief agencies.

The bill doesn’t limit any public agency’s authority to take whatever steps it deems necessary to ensure compliance with its rules or regulations, or to punish noncompliance. All environmental, safety and health, labor and ethics laws would continue to apply. In addition, the bill would leave contractors liable for personal injury or property damage resulting from recklessness or willful misconduct.

“Standing side-by-side with my employees, I have personally done a lot of the work, and I have done it under crisis conditions,” said Tony Zelenka, president of Bertucci Contracting in New Orleans. “We have to put our assets on the line if we want to help, which means I may be at risk of losing my company for simply doing what I have been hired by the federal government to do.”