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Summer Camps: Not All Fun and Games


Every summer, approximately 14 million children and adults attend summer camps. Since 2002, the number of American Camp Association (ACA) day camps has increased by 69%, and resident camps have increased by 21%. These camps are an excellent way to provide structure and socialization for children during the summer months, as well as encouraging physical activity and promoting continuity in academics.

But there are risks associated with summer camps, notably illnesses and injuries. According to the ACA, there are almost twice as many instances of illnesses at summer camps than there are of physical injuries. The most common types of illnesses are: allergic reactions to foods and the environment (such as poison ivy or oak); asthma flare ups; heat stroke and dehydration; and tick bites and related illnesses.

The most common type of injuries are the inevitable slips, trips and falls, resulting most often in sprained ankles and foot injuries. Sporting injuries occur causing broken bones and concussions. Knife and burn injuries from campfires, rope cutting, and kitchen duties have also been reported.

For the illnesses and injuries described above, camps are required to have First Aid kits and medications on hand, and protocols in place that include transporting a person to emergency facilities if necessary.


The legal theory of liability that applies to establishments such as summer camps is called premises liability. According to the theory, the owner of the premises and the operator of the business--in this case the summer camp--has a duty to minimize the risks associated with the activities and facilities on the site. If that duty is breached and that breach causes harm that was foreseeable, then the owner/operator is liable for the damages caused by the harm.

Put another way, if a summer camper falls while rock climbing because the safety belt she is using is frayed and breaks, and the fall causes traumatic brain injury, the camp owner and operator could be held liable for the TBI and the medical costs associated with her care and recovery. The camp has a duty to ensure that the safety equipment for its activities is working properly; a frayed safety belt that breaks during normal use arguably was not working properly, and therefore the camp breached its duty to minimize risks associated with its activities and facilities. That breach led to foreseeable harm, a fall resulting in a head injury, and therefore the camp owner and operator must pay for the damages from that harm.


Waivers are now a permanent part of the summer camp landscape. These written and therefore express protections go beyond the implied protection of the common law theory of assumption of the risk, which holds that participation in inherently risky activities denies one the ability to sue for harm caused by the very risk the activity involves. The typical scenario is a soccer player who suffers a torn ACL; as awful as this injury is, it is one often associated with soccer and a risk assumed by the player.

Waivers indemnify and hold harmless owners and operators of summer camps from injuries resulting from ordinary negligence. If the camp operator negligently allowed the soccer ball to be over or under inflated, and that caused an injury, the waiver would most likely protect the operator from liability. However, if bad storms had soaked the field, causing it to be treacherous, and camp operators insisted that games still be held and injuries occurred due to slipping on the field, an argument could be made that holding the games was an act of gross negligence which invalidates the waiver. Gross negligence and recklessness remove the protection of the waiver and allow liability to attach.

Other circumstances in which a waiver would be invalid are: if the content of the waiver contains fraudulent material; if the waiver misrepresents the activity it purports to exclude from liability; if the terms of the waiver are unconscionable; and if the form of the waiver is illegal or unable to be understood.


If your child has been injured or become ill at a summer camp, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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