Friends of Pennypack Park looks to Harrisburg to protect volunteers from liability

Pennypack Park
Photo credit Kristen Johanson/KYW Newsradio
By KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — With Pennsylvanians flocking to local and state parks, the need for maintenance of those green spaces is increasing. However, a volunteer group that helped keep Philadelphia's Pennypack Park clean and thriving for decades has had to disband, and its former president believes parks and similar groups are at risk.

In 2013, a lawsuit was filed against Friends of Pennypack Park after a child drowned in Pennypack Creek. Then last year, after a child was injured in the park by a falling tree, the group lost the insurance the city required them to carry in order to operate.

“That higher-risk company had insured us for the last eight years and said, in turn, it would not renew,” Linde Lauff, former president of the friends group, said. 

That lack of insurance meant volunteers could be held liable for anything that happened to nearly anyone in the park.

So, the group, which at one time numbered some 2,000 volunteers, stopped operations on April 1. 

Lauff sent a letter to members early this year explaining the decision.

All of the equipment they used to keep trails clean was donated to the Fairmount Park Conservancy. Volunteers who used to clear trash and dig out invasive plants had to take their shovels and go home. 

Lauff approached State Rep. Mike Driscoll, who recognized the need for volunteers in the park. Driscoll introduced House Bill 2310 to protect groups like the Friends.

“What House Bill 2310 will do is limit the liability that a volunteer has, or a volunteer group has in any state park,” Lauff explained.

Driscoll says the bill was in the Judiciary Committee when the coronavirus pandemic hit, which stopped the bill dead.

He says he has heard from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle from Erie, Pittsburgh and York, all with similar problems, and it’s now time to get the bill back on track.

“We need to have a remedy here to give them some sort of immunity, otherwise they are going to disband — not only in my district, where Friends of the Pennypack have done really wonderful work over the years — but this is gonna happen all over the state," Driscoll said.

Lauff says volunteers in parks, public gardens and state forests are all affected by what happened to her group. It could mean all of these volunteer non-profit groups, who help the state maintain the park system, may be at risk as well.

Driscoll is hoping to fast-track the bill after the legislature resumes on Sept. 15.

"Now, more than ever, these parks have become more used and more necessary," he said. "So, yeah, if there could have been a worse time for us not to have friends of voluntary parks organizations, it’s 2020."

Driscoll and Lauff are hoping people who support the parks and the volunteers will write to their lawmakers and urge support of House Bill 2310. Driscoll says it is possible to the bill passed before the end of the year.