Wilson Center’s Science & Technology Innovation Program

Potential Liability for Crowdsourced Disaster Response Groups

In Commons Lab, Crowdsourcing, Disaster Management, Guest Blogger, Technology and the Law on September 26, 2011 at 8:56 am

Volunteer and technical communities organize to create and build tools that collect, search and organize data coming from crisis areas.  These crowdsourcing groups have effectively responded to a variety of disasters, including the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, the Japanese tsunami and the gulf oil spill.

At the same time, these groups raise liability questions that courts have yet to address.  Volunteer and technical communicates should take proactive steps to reduce this liability.  If not properly managed, tort liability has the potential to destroy the model before it realizes its potential.

In the United States, for example, the law does not require a person to rescue another, even if the person can do so safely.  Uncomfortable with this general rule, courts have narrowed it with several exceptions.  Under U.S. law, a duty to rescue arises when: 1) a person undertakes rescue; 2) where a person’s conduct puts another in danger; and 3) when a special relationship exists between the rescuer and the victim.

Thus, a crowdsourced response group will not be held liable for failing to aid a disaster victim unless it falls into one of these three exceptions.  Although no court appears to have addressed the issue, crowdsourced response groups could potentially fit into one or more of the above exceptions where a duty and the corresponding potential for liability exists.

First, a volunteer group that undertakes rescue opens itself to liability. In the context of crowdsourced disaster response, it is unclear what it means to undertake rescue.  Courts reason that when someone undertakes rescue, it decreases the chance others will do the same.  Thus, the person attempting rescue  must act reasonably to ensure the victim is not worse off.  One example would be a crowdsourced response group receiving a call for assistance via social-media and telling the victim help is on the way.  If the group fails to send help, it or its members may face liability.

Second, a duty to rescue arises when a person puts another in danger.  U.S. courts reason that one who creates danger should attempt to mitigate harm.  In the context of crowdsourced disaster response, duty and corresponding liability may arise if the group misled people resulting in injury.  For example, a crowdsourced group broadcasting information to a disaster site that results in a stampede could create liability.  Moreover, a group that provides incorrect or outdated information regarding the location of a victim that results in responder injury may also give rise to liability.

Third, a duty to rescue exists when there is a special relationship between parties.  These relationships can include common carrier-passenger, hotel operator-guest, business-customer, parent-child, and teacher-student.  More recently, courts have recognized special relationships in a variety of contexts, emphasizing the dependence of one party on the other.  In crowdsourced disaster response, a special relationship  potentially arises between the crowdsourced group and anyone relying on the information, such as aid workers or victims.

Although crowdsourced disaster response groups are a recent phenomenon, it is not too early to take proactive steps to reduce liability.  First, volunteer and technology communities should not undertake rescue by sending volunteers to provide emergency services or directing the delivery of aid.  Second, these groups should not communicate with victims but should assume the role of the passive observer, collecting, organizing and making information available.  Third, groups should discourage reliance on information they disseminate with the use of disclaimers and other notices indicating that any information should not be relied upon for life safety purposes.

Crowdsourced groups have the potential to be a valuable resource in quickly getting help to where it is needed most. By proactively addressing liability issues, these groups can help ensure that their model will be viable for years to come.

This article is published for informational purposes only and is not a description of the law in any state.  It should not be construed as providing legal advice on any particular matter.

To watch the panel discussion on “Liability and Reliability of Crowdsourced and Volunteered Information for Disaster Management” click here. For more information about the speakers, click here. See also the National Alliance for Public Sector GIS Foundation Blog.

Guest Contributor Edward S. Robson, Esquire

Edward S. Robson, Esq.

Edward S. Robson is the managing member of Robson & Robson LLC, a law firm located outside of Philadelphia.  Mr. Robson has represented emergency service organizations in a variety of matters, including First Amendment issues, civil rights, employment, contract negotiations, internal governance, personnel policies, SOP’s and equipment purchases. He has volunteered as an emergency medical technician since 2003 and currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors of a large suburban fire company. Mr. Robson graduated with honors from both Villanova University and Villanova University School of Law and is a member of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bars.

Mr. Robson can be reached at 610.825.3009 or Erobson [at] robsonlaw [dot] com. His website is www.robsonlaw.com.

Robson & Robson, LLC
920 Matsonford Road, Suite 103
Conshohocken, PA 19428

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  1. Interesting post – and I would argue that a certain amount of liability is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, this might also bring with it a certain amount of responsibility. I think the potential of cloud based disaster response is very interesting but at the moment there are still too many problems with it to be truly useful. False positives, lack of actionable information and outdated information being relayed (over and over) to responders mean that clouds that consist solely of members of the public are frequently not able to be actually helpful. However I think that this kind of technology can be very useful for professionals to better coordinate their response in a disaster – let’s call it a “closed cloud”.

    (I put some of my thoughts about cloud based disaster response in a blog post a while ago: http://sm4good.com/2010/11/21/cloud-based-information-disaster-response/ )

  2. […] issues of privacy (although if only public messages are being used, this is less of a problem), and liability – what if wrong information leads to property damage, or even worse to the loss of human life? […]

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