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School's Out for Summer

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As Alice Cooper crooned, “School’s out for summer!” That means it’s time for the beach, the boardwalk, and baseball games. It also means summer camps will be in full swing. Whether kids are involved in sports, computers, science, music or the fine arts, sleep-away and day camps present unique risks for campers, parents, counselors, the organizations running the camps and insurance companies.

In recognizing the existence of these risks, the New Jersey Legislature created the Youth Camp Safety Act (N.J.S.A. 26:12-1, et seq.). Further, the Youth Camp Safety Standards (N.J.A.C. 8:25-1.1 et seq.) were codified to implement the Act. Organizations seeking to operate a Youth Camp or Single Sport Youth Camp must apply to the Department of Health to obtain a Certificate of Approval. The Department maintains a list of licensed Youth Camps in the state on its website. Applicants must meet the minimum requirements set forth in the Act and Administrative Code to obtain and renew that license.

Among the requirements of the Youth Camp Safety Act, camps must carry liability insurance in an amount consistent with the expected risks involved with the types of activities in which campers will be engaged. In addition to comprehensive general liability coverage, some camps may need automobile coverage, or provide optional accident or catastrophic medical coverage for participants. The Act also requires that all equipment used by campers be of good quality and not present an undue risk of injury to campers or staff.

Single Sport Youth Camps are not permitted to have sports considered “high risk activities” as their primary activity. A “high risk activity” is defined in the Administrative Code as any recreational component, sport or activity of a youth camp, which exposes a camper to a life threatening or serious injury because of the inherent danger of the recreational component, sport or activity and which requires a high level of adult supervision at all times. A “high risk activity” includes, but is not limited to, archery, swimming and other aquatic activities, horseback riding, riflery, rope courses, motorized vehicles, and rock climbing.

Often, camps require campers and/or their parent or guardian, in the case of a minor, to sign a waiver that purports to release the camp/facility from all liability. Commonly, the release language includes some variation of the following:

“In consideration for my child being permitted to participate in the program, related events and activities, the undersigned acknowledges and agrees that as the natural parent and/or as the legally authorized guardian, do hereby for myself, my spouse, my child agree not to sue and hereby release, waive, discharge, hold harmless and indemnify and forever defend the program administrator, for any and all known or unknown, foreseen or unforeseen, bodily or personal injuries, death and permanent injury, illnesses, damage to property, or other losses, and any consequences thereof, including expenses, costs, and attorney's fees, as may be sustained by my child or me arising out of or in any way associated with my child's participation in the given program, travel incident thereto, whether by negligence or not to the fullest extent permitted by law. The risk of serious injury to my child from these activities does exist including the potential for permanent disability and death. I understand and fully acknowledge that my child's participation in these activities is solely at our own risk and I assume full responsibility.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the effect of such waivers signed by a parent or guardian on behalf of a minor in Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323 (2006). The Court determined that a parent cannot bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of that child’s potential tort claim resulting from an injury suffered at a commercial recreational facility. Such facilities would include youth summer camps. While a waiver signed by a child’s parent may contractually bind the minor to a particular forum, such as arbitration, the Court found release of a minor’s right to pursue a tort claim to be against public policy and unenforceable.

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