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Insure the Volunteer Spirit

October 16, 2003

Rose Espinoza started with the simplest of ideas in the simplest of places: She would fight gangs by working from her garage. She would invite children of all ages to come to her place after school to do their homework. They would have a safe site and tutoring. Older children would help younger ones.

It worked. For 12 years, children in Espinoza's La Habra neighborhood flocked to Rosie's Garage. The program expanded to three other locations and won a presidential Points of Light award.

The original garage operation continued -- until a few weeks ago. A neighbor whose daughters attended the program threatened to sue after Espinoza's dog bit the man's 6-year-old, who required three stitches. The dog had spent years near the children without trouble.

Espinoza's homeowner's insurance will probably take care of the matter. But this brush with liability, and the prospect of higher premiums, frightened her out of her garage. She closed it and sent students to a rent-free office space with liability insurance several blocks away. Getting to the new location involves crossing a railroad track. Parents can no longer let their children "run over to Rosie's" unescorted, and attendance has fallen by half.

More than a decade ago, liability concerns shut down a Safe Rides program in the Los Angeles area. Sober teen volunteers provided rides for peers who otherwise probably would have driven drunk or ridden with a drunk driver.

Volunteers who planted trees and spruced up grassless medians in Silver Lake were sued four years ago by the family of a motorist killed in a traffic accident. The family claimed that piles of dirt on the medians obstructed drivers' vision. The suit was dismissed, but the neighborhood chamber of commerce racked up an $8,000 legal bill. The beautification, scheduled for completion in 2000, remains unfinished.

Would-be board members of Los Angeles neighborhood associations fretted until the city ponied up for liability policies. Even neighborhood block parties must buy liability insurance these days.

Consent forms requiring participants in programs like Rosie's to mediate disputes would be a start but would not have helped the Silver Lake neighbors, who were sued by an outside party.

In those cases, how about some organized, accessible pro bono assistance from the attorneys who normally benefit from lawsuits? That alone would help discourage frivolous suits. The American Trial Lawyers Assn. should also help defray low-level blanket liability policies for grass-roots volunteers. As a last resort, the federal government could boost grants for localities to help cover volunteers' liability.

Accidents do happen, and the threat of lawsuits should not hang over every community effort.

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