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Midyear 2014: Preparing lawyers for mass casualty disasters

Midyear 2014: Preparing lawyers for mass casualty disasters

By John Glynn

The devastating effects of disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing require lawyers to be prepared to help their communities and clients and to preserve the judicial process. The American Bar Association Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness plans to equip lawyers with the skills they need in the event of an emergency during a Feb. 7 panel discussion at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Chicago. 

“Our committee believes that it is extraordinarily important to keep lawyers educated and informed about the need to plan, prepare and be ready for the possibility that a major disaster, man-made or natural, will occur in the communities in which they live and serve their clients,” said Anthony Barash, chair of the ABA disaster committee.

Using Chicago as their primary example, experts on the panel “Disaster Response and Preparedness: The Legal Hot Spots in an Urban Mass Casualty Incident” will address the concept of mass casualty incidents, which come in two forms: natural disasters or violence.

“Violence comes mostly in a traumatic form: a terrorist attack, which can come in a subway or metro, high-rise building, explosives on the street, like with the Boston Marathon,” said panel moderator Richard Friedman, senior fellow for urban and national security affairs at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Panelists are James McPherson, executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General; Lai Sun Yee, chair of the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law’s Committee on Emergency Management and Homeland Security; and Gary Schenkel, executive director of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Both individuals and corporations tend to seek guidance from lawyers in the event of a traumatic situation or mass casualty incident.

“People are going to turn on their televisions and try to get information. If they cannot, they are going to look to their lawyers for wise counsel,” Friedman said.

“A corporation is going to call their outside lawyer or corporate council and say, ‘Things have really gone wrong in a big way. What do we do? What are the legal implications?’”

Lawyers play a critical role in helping clients deal with the aftermath of a disaster, such as loss of property, jobs, housing and identity documents.

Disasters can also result in the loss of public records, closed courts and damaged facilities.

“In the case of the judicial and public records system, lawyers are vital participants both in planning to mitigate a disaster and planning to respond to a disaster so the process and the system can work,” Barash said.

As officers of the court, lawyers also assist in sorting out issues that occur when people are hospitalized, housed in mental health facilities or incarcerated during a disaster.

“We know from the experience of Hurricane Katrina, the possibility exists that innocent people are going to continue to be incarcerated by virtue that they are there, no one knows they are there and the records are destroyed,” Barash said. “Lawyers in that case have a remarkably important job to do.”

Hosting the panel during the ABA Midyear Meeting in Chicago is especially timely.

“Lawyers will be here in one of the coldest winters we can all remember, and they can see a natural situation in which a community is immediately affected by transportation, by inadequate housing, by limited access and increased need for access to medical facilities and so forth,” Barash said. “This is a perfect time and perfect space to bring our message to several thousand lawyers who will be with us in the city.” 

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