The state legislature has unanimously passed a bill that shields restaurants, hotels and convention centers from liability when they donate food to a charity.
Under existing law, food donors are protected from criminal prosecution and civil liability resulting from consumption of the donated food as long as the donor acts in good faith. The new bill extends legal protection to restaurants, hotels and convention centers that donate food to a charity or non-profit organization who use the donated food specifically to combat hunger.
Local representatives and charity organizations said that potential donors have abstained from donating because of a fear of lawsuits.
"Restaurants wanted to donate food but were advised not to by their attorneys because of liability exposure," said Rep. Jamie Hagood (R-Knoxville).
The new bill, which also received support from some members of the Knoxville Bar Association, is seeking to alleviate fear of lawsuits. It continues to allow lawsuits against a donor if the donor is grossly negligent, reckless or acts with intent to harm.
Rep. Hagood believes that the criminal and civil immunity should increase food donations to organizations such as Second Harvest Food Bank.
Elaine Machiela, Executive Director of the Second Harvest Food Bank, is skeptical that the new law will increase food donations to organizations such as hers. "As much as I'd like to see them increase, I don't think they will," said Machiela.
Machiela said that national laws already exist that grant immunity to charitable food donors. Despite this protection many businesses are still afraid to donate their excess food.
Although businesses fear lawsuits associated with donated food, Machiela said that none of the 200 national Second Harvest Food Bank affiliates has ever been held liable for injuries resulting from the consumption of donated food.
"There has never been any kind of lawsuit filed against any affiliate in that capacity in our 30-year history," said Machiela.
The Knox County Health Department supports food donation as long as food donors follow the guidelines that the Health Department enforces.
"Our only concern is that food is wholesome, properly cared for and maintained at the proper temperature in transporting, storing and serving it," said Ronnie Nease, Director of Environmental Health for Knox County Health Department.
Nease said that if donated food meets his Department's guidelines, then he does not see any threat to public health. He also said that he is unaware of any past incidents where people have gotten sick from donated food.
According to Machiela, Second Harvest Food Bank collects about 45,000 pounds of donated food per month and distributes it to 350 agencies in 18 counties.
The new bill becomes state law July 1, 2004.