The New York State Bar Association Committee on Mass Disaster Response concept was developed in the aftermath of the train crash in Onondaga County in the early nineties. There were painful and sobering lessons learned about the legal profession during that tragedy. It was clear that nothing was in place to prevent unlawful solicitation, nor to explain the legal process and answer legal questions raised by the victims and their families. Attorney Doug Johnson witnessed these events and spearheaded the efforts to create this committee.
The NYSBA Committee on Mass Disaster Response seeks to aid victims of mass disasters by:
(1) providing free, short-term legal assistance to victims in the immediate aftermath of the disaster; and
(2) preventing unlawful solicitation of victims.
WHO WE ARE
The Committee on Mass Disaster Response consists of approximately twenty two volunteer lawyers, geographically dispersed throughout the state, with varying legal backgrounds and practices, and a small number of non-lawyers who bring special skills and experience in working with victims of mass disasters. Committee members serve minimum three year terms and receive training specifically geared to helping victims of disasters. Our members are trained in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and attend a three day course on Family Assistance Centers at the National Transportation Safety Board’s Training Center in Virginia.
WHAT WE DO
The Committee’s principal functions are to address legal issues faced by victims in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and to prevent unlawful solicitation of victims following a mass disaster.
The Committee responds to local disasters caused by accident or incident.
Established in the aftermath of the crash of TWA Flight 800 (1996) in East Moriches, Long Island, the committee has since responded to the following disasters:
- Amtrak crash (Syracuse) – January 2001
- 9/11 Terrorist Attack (NYC)
- American Airlines #587 (NYC) – November 2001
- Charter bus crash (Rochester) – Jan. 2005
- Continental Airlines Flight 3407 crash (Buffalo) – February 2009
- American Civic Center Shooting (Binghamton) – April 2009
- Bronx Bus Crash (Bronx) April 2011
Summary of Our Response Plan
Mass Disaster Call-Out: The Committee stands ready to help in circumstances where a significant number of the public could benefit from immediate assistance with legal questions, following either a man-made or local disaster.
The Committee responds at the official request of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), New York State Office of Emergency Management (NYSOEM), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), New York State Police (NYSP) Port Authority of NY & NJ (NY/NJPAPD), or the New York City Office of Emergency Management (NYCOEM), as well as other government disaster relief or law enforcement agencies.
In addition, the NYSBA President (or President-Elect) or his/her designee has discretion to implement the Response Plan without a formal request from a government agency.
NYSBA Official Status and Credentials
Committee members are issued NYSBA photo IDs, as well as an official NSYBA “Disaster Response Team” insignia, and business cards. The Committee makes arrangements with the governmental agency controlling the disaster response to gain admission to the family assistance center. Typically, that entity will issue to each responding Committee member a disaster-specific credential that authorizes access to areas where victims and their family members are gathered.
Legal Assistance Function
The Committee is designed to provide a rapid response to disasters and to provide short-term pro bono legal assistance outside of an attorney-client relationship. We do not represent victims and we are not their lawyers. They are not our pro bono clients and they cannot be our fee paying clients. If victims have legal needs that require specialized knowledge or ongoing assistance, we are authorized to refer them to traditional pro bono services and/or lawyer referral services maintained by NYSBA, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division if they respond to the disaster, or local bar associations. Committee members on their own do not make referrals to an individual lawyer or law firm.
Committee members are normally called upon to answer specific questions about such specialized matters as the issuance of death certificates, competing claims by family members to the release of the remains or property of the decedent, estate, guardianship and family law issues, landlord/tenant issues, motor vehicle questions and immigration concerns, which few of us are prepared to answer except in a general way.
Typically, Committee members will staff a table or a room at a family assistance center and be available to address the broad range of legal questions that may come up. The Committee member’s response will depend on the nature of the questions presented, the knowledge of the Committee members and other volunteer lawyers on site, and the ability to access specialized knowledge of NYSBA volunteers or attorney referral services maintained by the NYSBA and other bar groups.
Experience at family assistance centers reveals that Committee members are viewed more broadly as problem solvers than as lawyers, not only by the victims but also by helping agencies.
The Committee assists in monitoring compliance by Attorneys with New York State law which prohibits an attorney (or anyone working for the attorney) from engaging in an unsolicited communication with a victim or the victim’s representative relating to a specific incident involving a potential claim for personal injury or wrongful death prior to the 30th day after the incident. In the case of aviation and rail disasters, federal law preempts state law and provides similar prohibitions of no solicitation within the first 45 days of the accident.
In 2003, the Committee received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Emergency Management at that year’s New York State Disaster Preparedness Conference. The committee is proud of the work we perform and strive to continue the efforts of those prior committee members no longer with us who set the example of selfless service.
This committee is seeking attorney volunteers who can join, participate in training, and support the functions of this committee. If you are intersted, please reach out to Howard Protter.
This is not intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney for your specific situation.
Howard Protter is a Partner with the firm and practices Municipal Law, Business Law & Litigation, Commercial and Real Estate Transactions, Guardianships and Receiverships, Intellectual Property, Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution, and International Business Transactions.
He can be reached by phone at 845-764-9656 and by email.[/column]