We are now in the middle of summer, and children are at sleep-away and day camps. Unfortunately, camp season brings accidents and injuries. At the end of the summer parents come to us to investigate injuries to their children while at camp.
I. The Camp’s Liability
Summer camps are responsible for the minor children under their care. There is a an ancient concept that a camp (or school) is responsible for its charges. This doctrine is called in loco parentis which means that the camp stands in the place of the parent. When the parent entrusts his child to the camp, the camp is standing in the shoes or place of the parent. The camp must exercise the reasonable care that a parent would have.
The concept of in loco parentis does not make the camp an insurer for the absolute safety of the child. The camp is not obligated to have a ratio of 1:1 counselors to campers. Children can get hurt in their usual sports activities. A camp is not expected to chain its campers to the bunks. Judges know that accidents can happen even in the best of circumstances and where a camp has acted reasonably, the camp will not be responsible.
The obligation of reasonable care means that activities must be reasonably supervised. Also, camp grounds must be kept in reasonable care. For example, a camp will be responsible for a broken step in the same manner a landowner will be held liable in an apartment house setting.
Fortunately, serious accidents are rare.
II. A Couple of Case Histories
A. A Drowining
A 12 year old child drowned during a weekend retreat at a religious camp in upstate New York. There was an issue as to whether the boys were told not to go swimming in the lake without a life guard being present.
The child and his friends woke very early on Saturday and went to the lake to swim. They quietly went down to the lake while the rest of the camp was still asleep. Sadly, the boy was unable to swim and drowned. One of the friends called the camp’s caretaker. He tried to rescue the child, but it was too late.
Was the camp negligent? The adult supervisors said that the boys were told not to swim. The camp caretaker acted heroically. The boy was 12 years and had some judgment. Should the lake have been fenced-off? Is this practical or even reasonable at a rural camp? We never had a court and jury determine these questions; we were able to reach a reasonable settlement.
If the camp had permitted swimming in the lake during its regular hours and if it failed to provide a life guard, then the camp would be liable without question.
B. A Trip and Fall
In another case a youngster, also of 12 years of age, went to a camp. This young man had a congenital bone defect in his leg which had required prior surgeries and treatment. He had a permanent condition with this leg. Nonetheless, his parents and doctors encouraged him to have a regular life including a summer at camp.
Unfortunately, this boy fell down the first three steps of his bunkhouse. He sustained a very serious fracture which required surgeries and physical therapy.
Upon investigation we found nothing wrong with the stairs. The risers and treads were in fine condition. Also, there was a handrail. Furthermore, the lighting was adequate. In sum, there was no basis for liability against either the camp or the camp group that rented the facility. Furthermore, there was no negligent supervision claim in that the child; he was merely leaving his bunkhouse.
III. Investigate, Investigate, Investigate
What do these unfortunate cases tell us? The unique facts of an accident are crucial in determining the ultimate outcome of the case. Prompt and full investigation must be done by an attorney. If a child has an accident during a camp stay, the parent should contact an attorney as soon as possible so that an investigation can be done.
Such investigation includes professional photographs, interviews of witnesses, and an inspection of the site by an expert.
In the drowning case we secured an inspection of the camp site. I personally supervised the inspection with a professional photographer and an expert in camp supervision, recreation, and swimming.
If the camp is still open, it is better to get the investigation while the camp is open and before it closes for the fall and winter.
If your child has had an accident during a camp stay, please feel free to call us at 800-581-1434.
Mark E. Seitelman, 7/10/08, www.seitelman.com