Guest Columns

Letter to the Editor: NYS Should Protect Municipalities from Liability on Reopening Decisions

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 I am the Town Supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh, a suburban community in southern Westchester County.   Like many similar municipalities, most of our facilities are closed and others are open with only a skeleton staff.  
     Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, testified before the Senate Health Committee on May 12 that reopening facilities too soon could lead to serious consequences, including risks of suffering and death.      
     Guidelines as to when to reopen various types of facilities (such as Town/Village Halls, libraries, recreational facilities) are, through nobody’s fault, not scientifically precise.    There is clearly a risk that if a Town/Village Hall is opened on a fully-operational basis, one or more municipal employees or members of the public will unfortunately contract COVID-19 and then bring a lawsuit against the municipality claiming that the municipality was at fault for not providing a safe environment.   For example, in a neighboring state, Pennsylvania, there is already a lawsuit for wrongful death against a business legally authorized to reopen.
      Hopefully municipal insurance policies would cover the municipality and its public officers for lawsuit defense and any liability, but there is no assurance.   There is a pressing need for governmental litigation protection.    
     Unfortunately, on the Federal level, the issue of litigation protection has disintegrated into a partisan political fight.   The only hope for litigation protection is on the State level. 
     Every citizen of New York lives within a city, town, village or other municipality.  Municipalities provide essential public services, such as public safety, emergency medical services, assistance for seniors, programs for at-risk children, recreational facilities, environmental protections, codes for safe buildings, etc…   It is not in the public interest for municipalities to run the risk of COVID-19 lawsuits when they reopen their facilities.   An adverse judgment could force municipalities to cut back on important services they provide to the public, or even go bankrupt.  
     I would like to suggest that the Governor consider asking the Legislature to pass an emergency bill providing that lawsuits for contracting COVID-19 in or on municipal properties cannot be brought against municipalities and its public officials which open Town facilities in accordance with the Governor’s directives.   
                                                                   PAUL J. FEINER
                                                                   TOWN SUPERVISOR
                                                                   TOWN OF GREENBURGH, NEW YORK

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