S 543 -- 04/29/97

April 29, 1997

S. 543 - Volunteer Protection Act of 1997
(Coverdell (R) Georgia and 10 cosponsors)

Although the Administration strongly supports national and community service and volunteerism, it opposes S. 543.

The President has a deep commitment to volunteer and service activities and supports efforts to encourage Americans to engage in these activities. The Administration will work with Congress on proposals that, while respecting state law, help provide reasonable liability protection to volunteers involved in the delivery of needed services.

S. 543 is not such a bill. Without any hearings demonstrating the inadequacy of state law in this area, S. 543 effects a sweeping preemption of state law in cases involving "non-profit organizations" and "volunteers." The over-broad definitions in the bill -- which might apply to hate groups, street gangs, or violent militia -- make this takeover of state law potentially troubling.

As with broader tort reform measures, the Administration is also troubled by the legislation's one-way preemption -- state laws would be preempted if they favor plaintiffs, but not if they favor defendants -- and by Section 5 of the Bill, which would totally abolish joint-and-several liability for noneconomic damages (e.g., pain and suffering). This provision would unfairly discriminate against the most vulnerable members of our society -- the elderly, the poor, children, and nonworking women -- whose injuries often involve mostly noneconomic losses. Noneconomic damages are as important to victims as economic damages and must not be relegated to second-class status.