Federal Court in Idaho holds camp not liable for assault on third party by runaway minors.Posted: March 16, 2015
The Court did find that the camp was still in the custody and control of the minors during the assault which occurred three days after the youth had run away from the camp.
State: Idaho, United States District Court for the District of Idaho
Plaintiff: Vera Gadman
Defendant: Joseph Martin; Marshall Dittrich; Penelope James; and Phoenix Mountain Collaborative, LLC.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Defendant Defenses: No duty
Holding: for the defendant
This case is about the escape of two boys from a summer program for “troubled” youth. These programs have achieved fame and notoriety based on various issues of successes and failures, as well as abuse. However, this legal issue is important to anyone who is taking care of youth at a camp… In this one two kids at the camp ran away and then assaulted a third party. The person the runaway kids assaulted then sued the camp for her injuries.
The defendant camp was operated in Montana. During one part of the session, the youth were rafting the Clark Fork River. The Clark Fork flows from Montana to Idaho. One night during the river trip the campers were on property owned by the defendant camp. The youth ran away.
Neither of the youth who ran away from the camp had a history of violence. They seemed to be enrolled in the program because of drug use and generally being really stupid kids. Both youth has been on a run-away watch a system developed by the camp and had their journals and shoes removed. However, their shoes were returned to them for the rafting trip.
The school had a “Run Watch Policy” which the court pointed out, quoted from and found the school had not followed. “Explorations will take all reasonable precautions pertinent to each individual student so as to reduce the possibility of their escape from our custody.”
The defendant camp filed a motion for summary judgment, and this decision is based on that motion.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The defense was based on two theories.
1) they owed no duty to Ms. Gadman [plaintiff] and
2) the actions of Mr. Dittrich and Mr. Martin (youth runaways) were not foreseeable [to cause injury to the plaintiff] to either Explorations or Ms. James [defendants].
The determination under Idaho law as to whether the defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiff’s when they are in charge of youth “who are dangerous or who have dangerous propensities“ is a two-part test.
The first part requires a determination of whether the supervising body actually has control over the individual in question, and then secondly, if so, a determination must be made whether the harm caused by the individual was foreseeable.
The court then looked at the first part of the test.
One who takes charge of a third person whom he knows or should know to be likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to control the third person to prevent him from doing such harm.
The first part of the test is whether or not the supervising authority has actual control over the youth. Here the youth were not allowed to leave the camp without the camps or the youth’s parent’s permissions. Even though the youth had voluntarily, and without permission, left the campsite and been away from the camp for two days at the time of the attack, the court held the camp was still in control, for the purposes of the test, of the youth.
Ordinarily, there is no affirmative duty to assist or protect someone unless special circumstances exist. The analysis is not what is the relationship between the affected third party and the youth in this case, but the relationship between the youth and the camp. “Thus, the duty alleged in this case would have to arise from a supervisory relationship where Ms. James/Explorations exercised some level of control over Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich.”
The fact the youth ran away was not valid excuse or abrogation of control by the camp.
Explorations was responsible for the care and custody of the youth participants in its programs. The minor participants could not leave the program without their parents’ permission. When asked if the participants of the outdoor program were “free to leave,” Ms. James stated in her deposition that participants who were minor could only leave if they had their parents’ permission, otherwise they were not free to leave. Ms. James went on to state that the steps taken to assure participants do not leave are that “care is provided, oversight and care, with our instructor team the entire time the students are there.”
Most of this analysis was based on the camps Run Watch Policy and Run Watch Kit for leaders. Because the camp knew the kids would run away and prepared for it, they knew it was possible and consequently, the court felt they did not give up control over a kid when the kid did run. “The Court finds upon these undisputed facts that Mr. Martin and Mr. Dittrich were in the custody and control of Explorations at the time of the attack.”
The next issue was the foreseeability question. In this case, the question was not whether it was foreseeable that the kids would run away, but whether it was foreseeable, the kids would assault a third party.
Foreseeability, ‘contemplates more than the mere possibility of aggressive tendencies…. The concept of foreseeability is much more narrowly drawn in this circumstance, … i.e. violence, particularly of a sexual nature, toward members of the public … must be manifest or ostensible, and highly likely to occur.
The plaintiff argued the violent acts of the defendant were foreseeable because of the youth’s drug use and prior attendance at treatment facilities. However, the court did not agree with this.
Although the boys had struggled in various aspects of their lives before attending Explorations, there is nothing in their histories that was known to Explorations that made their actions on July 31, 2011 [date of the attack] foreseeable.
The theft of drugs by one participant who had run away in the past, nor the fact that the kids had been planning to run away did not change the court’s opinion of this. The planning though, was only discovered the history of the youth, after the youth had been caught. Both arguments by the plaintiffs were too speculative according to the court.
The court held therefore, that the defendant camp was not liable.
So Now What?
Although the defendant won this case, it was a close one. All camps should read this with the understanding that a minor that has been delivered to them by their parents are in their custody and control until they are delivered back to their parents.
Whether or not this can be moderated by contract, I’m not sure.
This case would have gone the other way if the youth had a history of violence. The defendant notified the boy’s parents and law enforcement within 90 minutes of the discovery the boys were missing. Even calling law enforcement did not change the issue of control.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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