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Parents, camp operators decry negligence ruling

Many worry about higher fees and camps closing because of potential legal costs.

July 18, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Several parents and day camp operators said Tuesday that a California Supreme Court ruling allowing recreation providers to be sued for gross negligence even if parents or participants signed a liability waiver is excessive and unfair to providers.

"Personally, I think this ruling's wrong," said Robert O'Neill, who was picking up his daughter Emma, 7, from SPF Beach Camp at Santa Monica Beach. "Ours is such a litigious society, and it gets out of control."

The decision Monday by the state high court means that, if an accident involving a participant was caused by gross negligence rather than ordinary negligence, the activity provider can be held liable, regardless of the language of a liability waiver.

O'Neill, a Santa Monica resident, had signed such a waiver for his children. He said the ruling could drive up camp fees as providers try to cover potential legal expenses. The financial impact of suits on small camp operations, he and others said, could drive some operations out of business.

With sailboats on the horizon and the pier to the side, SPF Beach Camp is in its third summer serving children ages 5 through 13. Nearly 70 children sat on the sand laughing and chanting, "We rock!"

But when co-director Pamela George looks at the idyllic scene, she already sees liability -- in the ocean, in her staff members, even in the children's lunches.

Participants must bring their own food, so that George and her brother Paul and sister Michelle, who run the camp with her, don't have to worry about allergic reactions by campers.

The 17 counselors must undergo CPR and first aid training and each may watch only up to six children at a time. Participants must wear yellow vests with their names written on the back, and Pamela George will release them only when a guardian has signed them out. All parents are given a liability waiver.

"We're really careful about liability," she said. "It's definitely a concern to us that all the children are safe. That being said, it's also a public place. If someone steps on a piece of glass on the beach, are we liable?"

But with children from nearly 400 families rotating through the camp during the summer, and boogie-boarding, kickboxing and obstacle courses on the slate of activities, Pamela George said she will consider Monday's court ruling when setting future safety rules.

"The ruling will probably force camps to buckle down on the precautions they take and take a closer look at what we should be doing as providers," she said.

Pacific Palisades resident Lauren Krasny agreed, saying that it is parents' responsibility to check a recreation provider's ability to supervise children.

"Accidents happen, but it's my job as a parent to screen providers who will take care of my kids," she said while picking up her daughters, Sydney, 10, and Sophie, 8, from SPF Beach Camp. "I'm very careful who I leave them with."

But at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, as nearly 60 kids frolicked in the pool during Sports Plus Day Camp, there seemed to be no fear of potential lawsuits.

Rick Weber, executive director at Sports Plus, said up to 600 children ages 5 through 14 participate weekdays in 15 activities, including surfing, volleyball and gymnastics at five area Sports Plus Day Camps in the area.

"With so many kids, we'll keep doing the right thing, knock on wood," Weber said, while shepherding children around the pool. "I can't really worry about [getting sued]. Hopefully, parents won't sign their kids up with the intention of suing us."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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