Judiciary Committee Update – Good Samaritans and other matters

During the third week of this Biennium, the Judiciary Committee took up its first bills of the session and received its first review of the marijuana legalization issue.

The Committee considered H.14, a bill that would modify the State’s Immunity Statute, or Good Samaritan law. Say the State wants to encourage an activity, such as trying to help another person in danger. To do so, a law may get rid of disincentives to taking that action, such as eliminating potential liability for any injury that may result. Generally, immunity statutes protect the Good Samaritan from liability for ordinary negligence – failing to use reasonable care resulting in injury to another. Such laws do not provide immunity for gross negligence or willful and wanton omissions or acts or conscious disregard of a known risk.

H.14 would tweak the law on immunity related to Automatic External Defibrillators (“AEDs”). Currently, the law provides immunity when someone is negligent in the use, ownership or training in the operation of AEDs. There are exceptions. Manufacturers, designers, developers, distributors, installers are not, for instance, immune from product liability laws if the AED is defective. The exceptions provision also applies to “suppliers,” which has raised a concern. H.14 proposes to strike the word “supplier” and replace it with the term “seller.” “Supplier” may be taken to mean an entity, such as a nonprofit, that donates an AED to a community-owned building. We do not want to discourage donations of AEDs by subjecting Good Samaritan donors to liability for negligence. The change from “suppliers” to “sellers” in H.14 would eliminate this disincentive.

The Committee also took testimony on H.20, which would modify the State’s open container law by prohibiting not only alcohol consumption in a moving vehicle, but also marijuana consumption. Under current law, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, be it in a car or elsewhere, would subject an individual to a civil fine.   The bill would tack on a higher civil fine when the possessed marijuana is consumed in a vehicle, recognizing the increased danger posed by driving under the influence of marijuana.

Marijuana came up in a different context when the Committee received a report on the work of the Joint Justice Oversight Committee, made up of five representatives and five senators who meet during the off-session. The bicameral committee held six meetings over the summer and fall to look at issues related to the regulation of marijuana. In its report, it did not take a position on whether Vermont should legalize marijuana for adult use. Rather, it recommended that if the General Assembly does advance such a proposal, it should include the following:

* a well-regulated commercial market that includes small cultivators,

* an allowance for adults 21 years of age or over to cultivate up to two mature and seven immature marijuana plants and the marijuana that is harvested from those plants,

* a strong education and prevention program aimed at youth under 25 years of age that is rolled out well in advance of any retail sales of marijuana, and

* a financing structure that covers all costs to the State related to legalization of marijuana while supporting a regulated market that can undercut the illegal market in hopes of moving illegal sales into the regulated market.

The Joint Justice Oversight Committee also recommended that the General Assembly pay close attention to any federal guidance coming from the new administration and keep in contact with other states that have legalized marijuana or are considering legalizing marijuana to keep abreast of the latest policies, practices, and challenges. I anticipate that the House Judiciary Committee will be hearing more about this issue in the weeks ahead.

This past week, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a joint meeting to consider loopholes in Vermonts sex abuse laws. Details on that hearing can be found in this Vermont Digger article. In addition, the House Judiciary Committee learned about and weighed in on funding of victim’s services in the Scott Administration’s budget adjustment proposal, received further training on how to apply Results-Based Accountability to the programs the Committee oversees, heard from the State courts’ administrator as to efforts to streamline CHINs cases (children abuse and neglect cases), and considered a bill related to how to calculate time periods for court deadlines (See H.4).

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