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Quadriplegiac cannot sue camp for injuries suffered on water slide

Robert Watkins sued the St. Francis Camp on the Lake after he suffered spinal injuries on the camp water slide.  Watkins is a mentally competent 34 year-old who was confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy.  He also suffers from spinal disc disease, arthritis, and speech disorders, although he does not have an appointed guardian.  When he enrolled in the camp, his mother explained these problems in his camp application and recommended that his involvement in certain activities be limited.

Nevertheless, camp counselors noted that he was willing to ride the 100 foot long water slide and enjoyed it, and they allowed him to ride it repeatedly over two days.  On the second day, he suffered injury at the bottom of the slide where a rut had developed that "launched" campers into a flip.

Two judges of the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Watkins' injury claim based upon their conclusion that his was a "premises liability" claim, and not a negligence claim.  They explained this ruling by pointing to prior cases where the court held that "in a premises liability action when determining whether a condition is open and obvious [and therefore the landowner owes no duty to the injury victim] "the fact-finder must consider the 'condition of the premises,' not the condition of the plaintiff....hence, plaintiff's physical condition was not pertinent to the determination that the condition was open and obvious."

The  third judge disagreed with this application of the "open and obvious" doctrine, but noted that since the plaintiff was a mentally competent adult, the defendants owed no duty to protect him from making a poor decision that endangered his health.  It would appear that this is a more reasonable application of legal doctrine, although we wonder whether the camp didn't assume a duty to Watkins when it took charge of his person with appropriate warnings and instructions from his mother.  It would appear to us that the combined circumstances of the camping experience and Plaintiff's disabilities created a fiduciary relationship between him and the camp--a relationship that was violated by a lack of good judgment and common sense.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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