Combine a small staff of teenaged or adult camp counselors with an energetic group of minors. Add swimming or canoeing, climbing over rocks, playing sports and games, and hiking along forest trails. What do you get? Lots of fun had by all, of course — unfortunately, not without a little risk.
Germs, Animals, Sharp Objects, and Other Not-So-Fun Things
Dangers are inherent in many summer camp activities. A fun activity can quickly turn into an accidental injury. From broken ankles to head injuries, from bullying between kids to sexual abuse, and from rock-climbing injuries to much worse — risks can be found everywhere.
In a study of illness and injuries at summer camps, researchers found (Yard, Scanlin, & Erceg et al., 2006):
- A total of 177 camper illnesses and injuries occurred during 122,379 camper-days (CDs). A CD represents one staff or child at camp for one day.
- A median rate of 1.15 adverse events per 1,000 CDs.
- The majority of reported events were illnesses (68.0 percent), 11.8 percent of which were communicable and seen in multiple individuals at camp.
- Of the injury events (32.0 percent), cuts, scratches, and scrapes were the most common diagnoses (33.3 percent), followed by fracture (14.6 percent) and sprain/strain (10.4 percent). Horseback riding and capture the flag were identified as injury-producing activities.
When Fun Results in Potential Liability
Lawsuits against camps and the institutions associated with those camps for the injuries discussed are not uncommon. Examples of lawsuits filed against universities and organizations for incidents occurring at their summer camps include:
- Wrongful Death: Transylvania University
In 2014, the family of a 13-year-old boy who drowned while attending a summer academic camp at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, filed a wrongful death lawsuit. The child lost consciousness during a recreational swim and was later pronounced dead at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. The coroner’s office determined the cause of death was drowning. The lawsuit alleged negligence and unsafe conditions (Claims Journal, 2014).
- Sexual Abuse: Duke University
In 2017, three lawsuits were filed against Duke University’s Camp Kaleidoscope, a summer camp for chronically ill children. The lawsuits claim that “on multiple nights, five campers ages 7 to 10 were left alone in a bunkhouse for an hour or more while their counselors attended a mandatory meeting.” Sexual abuse of several children allegedly occurred while they were alone and unsupervised (Quillin, 2020).
- Lyme Disease: YMCA Camp Mohawk Connecticut
Parents of a New York girl are suing the summer camp for $41.7 million after the girl contracted Lyme disease at the camp. The parents allege that the camp failed to monitor and protect their daughter by not ensuring that she wore protective equipment and not examining her after she complained of symptoms (NBC Connecticut, 2013).
In addition to day camps and sleep-away camps, we now have virtual camps, and these introduce a whole new set of risks. Organizations are increasingly facing lawsuits related to cyberbullying and harassment. Whether it’s the result of poor judgment or bad intentions, injuries of a different kind can happen to campers online.
Proactive & Reactive Measures: Preventing and Responding to Injuries
Ideally, the host will have proactively instituted preventive measures to mitigate risks and ensure that everyone — staff and campers alike — has a safe and positive experience.
But if someone does get injured despite all precautions and the camper’s family sues, the host needs to be prepared by having protections in place, fully understanding where they stand legally, and being aware of their options.
Step 1: Protect Yourself in Advance by Obtaining Camp Insurance
Even if you institute every preventative measure available, accidents happen. What is the best protection in such circumstances? A comprehensive camp insurance policy.
Look for an insurance policy that offers wide protection against the range of potential liabilities. For example, make sure the policy includes the following:
- General Liability Insurance: covers most types of injuries to campers that are likely to arise (i.e., sports, swimming, rock climbing, horseback riding, and more).
- Commercial Property Insurance: covers property damage arising from perils such as fire, burglary, or natural disaster.
- Workers’ Compensation Insurance: protects employees who become injured at work or fall ill after a work-related accident.
- Business Interruption Coverage: protects against lost income after a covered peril affects a business (i.e., theft, fire, wind).
Step 2: Minimizing Summer Camp Risks — Dos and Don’ts
While your insurance policy will protect you in case tragedy strikes, even better is to prevent such calamities from arising in the first place.
- Vet your staff. Conduct thorough background checks on every member of the team. If you neglect this step and a staff member behaves inappropriately, you may be held liable for the consequences.
- Review facilities and planned activities. You are responsible for providing a safe physical or digital campground and safe activities for campers. Review both carefully. If either the premises or an activity causes injury, you can be held accountable.
The American Camp Association (ACA) recommends that you “assess your need for fencing, lighting, and telephones or cell phones for emergency calls. If your camp is on a large amount of land, ask your security firm how they can patrol or protect the area, especially in areas that cannot be fenced in or include hundreds of acres. Review the architectural and environmental layout of your buildings in proximity to one another to determine secure and insecure areas. In addition, consider your camp’s nearness to cities, roads, or heavily forested areas” (ACA, n.d.).
- Establish visitor protocols. These should be tailored for anticipated as well as unanticipated visits.
- Prepare staff to prevent and stop bullying. Equip staff to handle bullying in all its forms: when a child is excluded from activities or group, teasing (such as using an unflattering nickname for a child), older children bullying younger children, or hurtful behavior in unsupervised cabins, bathrooms, or shower facilities.
The ACA notes that children who are especially susceptible to bullying include those who are gay, not good at sports, new to the camp, have a disability, are overweight, are quiet or shy, have trouble making friends, or any number of other reasons. Sometimes children are bullied for seemingly no reason at all (Storey, 2010).
- Establish beneficial relationships. Knowing and developing a rapport with individuals and companies near the camp and with local police is always a good idea.
- Assess your security protocols at least once a year. Your facilities might change, new potential threats could emerge, and your program may evolve. Make sure your policies are still valid.
- Accident/liability insurance. Have all campers, staff, and volunteers who attend overnight or athletic camps purchase accident/liability insurance through the organization’s risk management department.
- Waivers. Waivers should be required for all athletic and overnight camps. Because minors are not eligible to sign waivers, they must be signed by their authorized guardian.
- Assumption of Risk: This can serve as a potential defense to claims of negligence. It basically asks, “Did you know the risks of participation and voluntarily take on those risks?” It should contain an informed consent clause, which could increase the likelihood that a court will enforce an assumption of risk clause. The clause should be specific and include known hazards.
- Exculpatory Clauses and Indemnification: A contractual provision “relieving a party from any liability resulting from a negligent or wrongful act.”
In Terry v. Indiana State University, the court relieved Indiana State University from liability in a negligence action partly because the student had executed a Waiver, Release, and Indemnification Form.
- Indemnity Provision: By signing this, a parent agrees to take responsibility for any losses or damage the camper suffers, instead of seeking compensation from the college or university.
- Succumb to a false sense of security. Just because campers sign waivers for higher-risk activities, don’t think you are safe from potential claims should someone get injured.
- Let down your guard in a virtual camp environment. Establish strict protocols for interactions between staff and minors. Measures such as avoiding one-on-one contact with minors, not sharing details of your private life, and not contacting a minor outside of camp will help mitigate the risk of inappropriate conduct.
- Try to cut costs by using camp staff in place of security guards. Your staff doesn’t have the necessary training or resources and are not nearly equipped to serve in a security capacity.
- Record campers’ images without first obtaining a release form signed by their parent/guardian. Be vigilant about your online presence and the content shared publicly via your social media or other platforms.
- Make your camp counselors go it alone. Make sure they understand that if they’re unsure about how to handle a situation, they don’t have to solve it on their own. Encourage them to contact a supervisor if they need assistance.
- Think claims can only come from campers. Your camp is a business, and its counselors are employees. As such, you should be well versed in human resource laws and regulations, including those dealing with discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination, and much more. Incorporate these into your HR policies and procedures.
Wherever you host your summer camp — in a forest, on a lake, in a community center, or online — educating yourself and putting the right safeguards in place will help ensure success for you and a positive experience for those in your charge.
Step 3: Protect Yourself from Liability
You’ve taken all the precautions, but an accident happened anyway. What now?
- Respond to the injury: First and foremost, be sure to respond to any injury promptly and appropriately by contacting the appropriate medical personnel. If it’s an emergency, call 911 right away.
- Notify your insurance carrier immediately. You should notify your insurance carrier as soon as possible, even if you haven’t been sued yet or don’t expect to be sued at all. A failure to promptly notify your insurer could result in a denial of coverage. Therefore, you should never delay giving notice to your insurance carrier that an accident occurred that caused injury or damages.
- Contact an attorney. Even if you believe an accident presents little risk of liability, you should discuss the situation with an attorney who can help you assess the potential risks. Understanding your liability exposure, your attorney can help you navigate the insurance claim process and respond to any allegations.
- American Camp Association. (n.d.). Camp Security. ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camp-security
- Claims Journal. (2014, September 25). Kentucky family files suit over teen’s drowning death. claimsjournal.com/news/southeast/2014/09/25/255326.htm
- NBC Connecticut. (2013, October 18). Parents sue Connecticut camp for $41 million after daughter contracts Lyme disease. NBCUniversal Media, LLC. nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/parents-sue-connecticut-camp-after-daughter-contracts-lyme-disease-new-york/1937368/
- Quillin, M. (2020, May 11). Lawsuits claim child sexual assaults at former Duke summer camp for sick kids. News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina. piratemedia1.com/news/article_bfb0f5c6-2441-11e9-a62d-3f7bbc7d0e83.html
- Storey, K. (2010, May). Eyes on bullying: What you can do to prevent and stop bullying at camp. Camping Magazine. ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/eyes-bullying-what-you-can-do-prevent-stop-bullying-camp
- Yard, E. E., Scanlin, M. M., & Erceg, L. et al. (2006, December). Illness and injury among children attending summer camp in the United States, 2005). Pediatrics, 118(5), 1142–9.
The CampLine provides camp-specific knowledge on legal, legislative, and risk management issues.
Natasha Romagnoli, a partner in insurance recovery with Blank Rome LLP, is a litigator with more than 20 years’ experience with a wide breadth of clients, including corporations, investment funds, universities and high schools, religious institutions, and individuals, on issues in connection with insurance coverage claims and disputes.
Amit Roitman is an associate in Blank Rome’s policyholder-only insurance recovery practice group. She represents corporate policyholders and educational institutions in disputes against insurance companies involving a wide range of insurance policies, including commercial general liability, directors’ and officers’ liability, professional liability, and employment practices liability.
Maria Symchych-Navrotska / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images