Thursday, July 31, 2008

Students' Project Becomes Georgia Law

When businesses and nonprofits work with Georgia agencies to coordinate relief efforts in times of crisis, they can now be assured some level of liability protection thanks to new legislation that got its start in a Georgia State University College of Law classroom.

The Corporate Good Samaritan Act, as it's informally known, was signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Sonny Perdue as part of House Bill 89 and went into effect July 1.
The provisions of the good Samaritan portion of the law began as a project in Assistant Clinical Professor Sylvia Caley's year-long Health Legislation and Advocacy class in 2006. The law is designed to encourage businesses and nonprofits to coordinate relief efforts with state agencies in a time of emergency, such as widespread storm damage, flooding or disease outbreak. The idea was championed by Gene Matthews, a long-time legal advisor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and, for two years, a faculty fellow at the College of Law.

In Georgia, as in many other states, good Samaritan laws that limit an individual's liability when they render aid in an emergency didn't extend to the business and nonprofit communities. With a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Matthews has sought to change that, setting up the Public/Private Legal Preparedness Initiative at the North Carolina Institute for Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is a senior fellow.

"What I was interested in doing was building partnerships with the private sector around legal preparedness issues," said Matthews. "Without Georgia State's College of Law, this important improvement in preparedness law in the state of Georgia would not have happened," he said.

As part of Caley's class, students work with a nonprofit or government partner to craft legislation that fits the needs of the partner. Caley, who is also director of the Health Law Partnership and co-associate director of the HeLP Legal Clinic, says the students learn the ins and outs of crafting legislation, and about the often-complex manner in which proposed bills become law.

"So much of our law and public policy is created through the legislative process and I think it's important for everyone, particularly law students, to have an understanding of how the process works," she said. "People have different impressions of what goes on under the Gold Dome, but people have to understand they are going to pass laws that affect us."

Lee Gillis and Nichole Hair, who worked on the proposal as students, say crafting the legislation played to each of their interests: Gillis' interest in the legislative process and Hair's in health and public welfare.

"It's tough because it is ultimately going to be legislation," said Hair, who now works for civil defense firm Hall, Booth, Smith & Slover in Atlanta, and has had the opportunity to review proposed legislation as a professional. "If you're going to make law, you want to make a good law," she said.

Gillis, who has also worked on legislation professionally, says the good Samaritan law, in emergencies, extends the same protection enjoyed by state agencies to business partners working on behalf of the agency.

"If you have a group of in-house lawyers, and they don't have this protection, they're more likely to advise their client to sit on their hands," said Gillis, who now practices in Macon with the firm James, Bates, Pope and Spivey. "The bill was designed to help corporations be good Samaritans without making their lead counsels nervous."

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