Oklahoma Legislation Aims to Limit Liability in Storms

By BAILEY ELISE MCBRIDE | March 31, 2014

A pair of Oklahoma legislators says businesses, schools and churches that open their doors to passers-by during violent weather should be spared liability if their temporary guests are hurt or killed.

A bill by Rep. Larry Glenn, R-Miami, would exempt individuals, businesses and schools that help out during a catastrophe, while another by Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, would extend the same immunity to churches. Glenn’s bill originally also included churches, but when he learned of Cleveland’s bill he had churches struck from his text so there would not be redundancy in the law.

“If you’re in the middle of a disaster and somebody’s needing help, I didn’t want someone to be fearful of giving aid because of potential litigation,” Glenn said. “My district is right up in the northeast corner of the state, so we’ve had our share of tornadoes.”

The lawmakers said they have heard numerous anecdotes about people being turned away from shelter during last year’s violent storms in Oklahoma and Missouri. The bills would protect all those who offered aid in times of emergency, unless someone was hurt or killed due to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.

“I had heard that what it was a lot of the time, you hear of people seeking refuge in coolers in restaurants,” Glenn said. “I’d heard some people in Joplin had been denied that because of policies.”

Cleveland said a friend of is in Norman relayed worries from his local church about opening their doors during a storm.

“Their board was talking about not being able to open doors because of that liability,” Cleveland said. “They were talking about what they would actually do if they got sued. … In today’s society people like to sue, so this frees (the churches) up and they can open their doors if and when disasters strike.”

Glenn said he had received an “all-positive response” to his bill.

“The reception has been very good. I’ve had emails from churches all over the state thanking me,” Cleveland said. “I just got an email last week from a church saying they were looking forward to the bill because they had a basement and now that bill is out they can continue to keep it open. They said they had met with lawyers just one week before they found out about the bill.”

“I’d say it’s probably one of the most important bills I will ever author,” Cleveland said.

Both bills are waiting for a vote in the Oklahoma Senate after passing the Oklahoma House and the Senate Finance Committee. If they pass, the bills would next go to Gov. Mary Fallin. She typically does not say ahead of time whether she will sign pending legislation. Cleveland said he expects the bills will come before the Oklahoma Senate next week.

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