The Ohio House is considering a bill that would give some limited immunity to campground owners for risks “inherent to nature.”
House Bill 355 would also protect camp ground owners from “frivolous lawsuits,” says Shane Wilkin (R-91), a co-sponsor of the bill.
“Imagine an example of a family camping at their local campground,” he told the Civil Justice Committee. “They are enjoying nature and set off on a hike of the grounds. Because of naturally occurring uneven terrain, one of the campers fall and break their ankle. This requires a trip to the hospital and medical bills. Should the campground be held responsible for that? My position is they should not, and those hikers took on an inherent risk by being out in nature.”
Wilkin emphasizes that the bill is not an “all-or-nothing” protection for negligence.
“It is important to note this legislation would extend liability protections for only those risks inherent to camping,” he explains. “Things such as a licensed swimming pool would not be covered for these protections.”
Rep. D.J. Swearingen (R-89) is the other co-sponsor. So far, the measure has 16 sponsors: 15 Republicans and Rep. Gil Blair (D-63).
The bill defines a “risk inherent to camping” as a “danger or condition that is an integral part of camping, including a danger posed by features of the natural world such as plants, roots, and mud, uneven or unpredictable terrain, a body of water that is not a swimming pool, and the weather.” It also includes:
- A lack of lighting, including at a campsite;
- Wildlife not kept by or under the control of the camp operator;
- The behavior or actions of domestic animals not kept by or under the control of the camp operator;
- The ordinary dangers associated with structures or equipment ordinarily used in camping and not owned or maintained by the camp operator;
- A camper or visitor acting in a negligent manner that contributes to harm to that camper or visitor or another camper or visitor, including failing to follow instructions given by a camp operator or failing to exercise reasonable caution while engaging in a campground activity.
Specifically excluded from the bill is immunity from lawsuits if the camp operator acts with a “willful or wanton disregard” for safety. There would be no immunity if the camp operator purposefully causes harm, or if the camp operator’s action constitute criminal conduct. Also excluded would be if an owner failed to warn campers of any dangerous conditions on the land, facility or equipment.
Lastly, the bill requires a notice at all campground entrances:
Failure to post the notice removes the immunity under the law.
The Ohio Campground Owners Association (OCOA) supports the measure.
In testimony to the committee, Chip Hanawalt, OCOA president, points out the bill applies only to private campgrounds. “Public campgrounds, like those in state parks, already
have certain protections because they are operated by Ohio,” he explained.
Hanawalt, who owns Sunbury/Columbus North KOA, says he takes safety very seriously.
“I do my best to make sure our campers are safe, but providing certainty of that is impossible,” he explained. “There is a campground not too far from mine that has been sued three times. One of those frivolous suits was brought on because a camper was walking along the woods, tripped over a fallen limb and sprained her wrist. Another campground in Ohio was sued after a woman was running through the open area, stepped into a mole hole along the way and broke her ankle. The same campground was sued again because a hot coal from a campfire flew out and burned a camper’s eye. Passing this bill will provide clarity for our members and for our campers.”
The National Federation of Independent Business and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce also support the bill.
They call it a “logical step” in the state’s effort to “create and preserve a stable, predictable legal climate.” They note these protections are modeled after a similar measure to protect the agritourist business, like petting zoos or you-pick farms.
There has been no opposition to the bill, so far. However, the Ohio Association for Justice (OAJ) would like to see some amendments.
OAJ is an organization of trial attorneys with a mission to advance their client’s rights and ensure Ohioan’s rights to have their disputes resolved by a jury.
John Van Doorn, OAJ’s director of government affairs, told the committee Wednesday the OAJ does not oppose the bill. But he is working with the sponsors to narrow the scope of the immunity.
Specifically, OAJ believes there should be better delineation between campground activities and recreational activities.
Campfires, streams and wildlife are risks inherent to camping, Van Doorn says. But other features, like zip lines, rock climbing and archery, are not integral to camping and should not be granted immunity.
He also says the law should require a notice that campers and visitors must control their animals at all times, and that campground owners must enforce this requirement.
Van Doorn says he expects the bill will be amended “in the near future” to address these points.
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Maggie Leigh Thurber is a writer for The Ohio Star. Email tips to [email protected].