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child summer camp injuries new york law

Summer camp can be a time of excitement for campers and anxiety for their parents. For many children, camp is their first taste of independence, a chance to test their wings. Unfortunately, hundreds of children are injured each year in summer camp accidents in New York. 

Summer Camp Injuries in New York: State Statistics

According to the New York State Department of Health, over 900,000 children attended either a day camp or an overnight camp in 2017. 796 sustained reportable injuries (none of these were fatal). Less than one percent of all children who went to camp in 2017 were injured, meaning campers from nearly 2,600 New York-regulated camps made it home without being seriously hurt. According to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), the rate of injury increased by two percent between 2016 and 2017, but the big picture shows a nine-percent decrease compared to the 15-year average of reportable injuries.

Most Common Summer Camp Injuries

According to the NYSDOH, over half of all injuries sustained while attending summer camp in 2017 were bone fractures (53 percent), followed by cuts, punctures and lacerations (33 percent), and muscle strains/sprains, dislocations, bites, and burns making up the remaining 14 percent. 

As a source of concussions, soccer was the biggest contributor at 34 percent, while organized games like capture the flag and tug of war resulted in over 20 percent of fractures. Cardio exercises like running and walking accounted for about 13 percent of reported cuts and punctures. 

Parent & Guardian Rights Regarding Summer Camp Accidents

Parents and guardians have certain rights whenever there is an accident, illness, or abuse involving their child at any one of the over 14,000 day and overnight camps in the US.  Both the camp operators and the local health department have a responsibility to see these rights are upheld. 

First, parents have the right to know that an incident occurred involving their child. This information is to come from the camp director or another designated camp representative, who also must inform the local health department.

Second, parents are entitled to review any inspection or investigation reports compiled by the local health department relating to the camp; and an investigation is mandatory with any report of serious injury. Not only are current reports available, but older reports as well, which allows parents (and their lawyers) to see if there is a pattern. For example, if a child has been hurt climbing a wilderness trail, it would be useful to know if the camp has a history of hiking accidents.

Third, each camp is required to have a written camp plans (MAKE PLAN SINGULAR) that cover everything from staff training to emergency and safety procedures. Parents have a right to see these plans even if their child has not been hurt. They are on file at both the camp and the local health department. If the plan calls for five counselors on every field trip, and Sarah is injured on a trip with only two counselors, that could be crucial information in court. 

Inspections vs. Accreditation

Another question worth pursuing is the date of the camp’s last inspection. The local health department should be conducting these inspections twice a year (including when the camp is open) and delving into issues like adequate staffing and safe facilities. The permit to operate is expected to be displayed on the premises for all to see. 

Inspections can be confused with accreditation, which is a voluntary assessment not needed for a camp to operate. Accreditation means the American Camp Association has determined compliance with up to 300 health and safety standards. A serious accident does not automatically jeopardize such standing. For one, the ACA is viewed as an educational organization without power to investigate—that responsibility belongs to the state. 

Once authorities have concluded their investigation, the ACA may or may not decide to conduct a re-accreditation visit. According to its website, Accreditation “can be withdrawn from a camp if ACA is notified by appropriate authorities that laws which significantly affect the health and safety of campers have been violated.” For more information on standards go to www.ACAcamps.org/funsafety.

What About Waivers?

In this liability-conscious world, parents may have gotten used to having to sign a waiver for their children to do just about anything, from trampoline parks to horseback riding. Summer camps often present a waiver or release from liability, sometimes called an exculpatory agreement, before a child can attend. Changes in camping have increased the use of these waivers. This is because camps have expanded their offerings beyond the traditional ones. At the same time, society in general has become more inclined to go to court. So, waivers have become increasingly vital in recent years to protect camps from litigation and – in the minds of the camp owners – allow them to offer non-traditional activities. 

When a camp presents such a release, it is asking the parent or guardian to give up the right to sue over an accident, as explained on the ACA website. The camp is seeking release from liability even if the accident is the result of staff carelessness, and even if it results in death. The operative words in such a contract are “release, waive, and agree not to sue.”

Releases are more effective, the attorneys say, if they are joined with a participant agreement and include a title that clearly states the nature of the agreement, as well as activities and their inherent risks. Courts tend to frown on claims arising from unforeseen events, so camps try to be as specific as possible or use expressions like, “including but not limited to” where it’s impossible to name everything.

Through waivers, parents are often asked to understand that the camp by its very nature has inherent risks without which camp may not be as much fun or growth-inspiring for the children who attend. Activities like soccer, basketball, and swimming all have inherent risks. Yet they also have benefits, and for that reason, these sports and others are often found on a camp lineup.

Waivers also can run into a legal snag where parents and/or their children are asked to sign a release electronically, since there are specific criteria regulating e-signatures. 

Keep in mind that just because a parent signs a release doesn’t mean it will stand up in court. New York is not one of the states that bans waivers outright, but it does have stricter standards for these documents, according to a state-by-state comparison by Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer of Austin, Texas. 

Bottom line, parents need not abandon a lawsuit just because they signed a waiver, especially if there is gross negligence that resulted in injury. With so many variables weighing in on a waiver’s effectiveness, this is one decision best left to the personal injury attorney handling the case.

Lawsuits Focused on Making a Difference

Despite what may seem like the difficulty of suing a summer camp, some parents have done so successfully, using the publicity gained to shed light on safety and oversight issues. Showered with media coverage for their case, a Santa Barbara, California, family won a $16.2 million jury judgment after their 4-year-old son,  Yoni Gottesman, drowned at Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club in Goleta, California. According to news reports, he was struggling for 3 minutes to stay afloat with lifeguards just feet away when he died in 2005. The family argued the guards were improperly trained. 

Today they maintain a website, yonigottesman.com, urging parents to report any drowning dangers or other hazards at camps, swim clubs, and other child-care sites. Many people get a false sense of security when they see a lifeguard, says Gerry Dworkin, a consultant for Lifesaving Resources Inc., a private safety organization. Dworkin told CBS News that over 100 drownings happen each year at guarded facilities like the camp that proved fatal for Yoni.

Another drowning took the life of 10-year-old Jeremy Scheinfeld, the victim of a water game gone terribly wrong during the summer of 1997 at Camp Scatico in Columbia County, New York. As a result of their suit, Jeremy’s parents hoped to bring about changes in the law especially as it relates to off-premise swimming areas that campers might frequent. According to their lawsuit, Jeremy became entangled in branches at Roeliff Jansen Kill after jumping into rapids with full hiking clothes and footwear.  They have written Jeremy’s Camp Safety Guide for Parents to raise awareness of the risks of summer camp.

The majority of children come home from summer camp with happy memories. But when tragedy happens, parents have the right to know the circumstances of what happened, and depending on the waiver they may have signed, pursue legal action. Keep in mind that often the best time to get familiar with the camp’s plan and policies is before sending a child off to camp. If there are too many red flags, choose another camp. A child’s safety should never be compromised. 

Contact a New York Personal Injury Lawyer

The injury attorneys at Sobo & Sobo have over 50 years of experience helping clients gain compensation to help cover medical costs, lost wages, and other damages for pain and suffering. Call 855-468-7626 today for a free consultation with an expert lawyer in New York.