The Camp Kitchen

By George Hughes

Space does not permit a discussion of every possible legal circumstance that may occur at camp, nor is this article intended to give specific legal advice. But ignorance of the law is no defense. It is good to understand a few basic concepts to inculcate responsibility when purchasing, preparing, and serving food to campers, staff, and guests.

Know your camp's liabilities for safety in the kitchen.

Law is very definitional, and not all jurisdictions define the law alike. Consider two hypothetical cases:

Case No. 1
A camp contracts with a food-service company (C) that hires an international student from Central America (INT), who does not report she has hepatitis. INT speaks little English and cannot read the language. After using the kitchen restroom, from which she cannot interpret the hand-washing sign, she goes back to her assigned duties of preparing the fruit bar.

As days go on, INT becomes extremely ill, along with some of the campers and staff members. What is the camp’s potential liability, if any, and what is the standard of care imposed upon C?

Case No. 2
A camp (C) verbally offers a partial scholarship to a 12-year-old student (S), reducing her fees by half, provided she helps in the kitchen 10 hours per week. Since C is a three-month summer camp only, it does not choose to participate in the state’s statutory workers compensation program, claiming it is self-insured.

One day, S is urgently called to substitute for an adult worker and doesn’t have time to change into her designated work clothes. She hurriedly puts on her shorts, shirt, and flip-flops, and dashes into the kitchen to work in the dish room. The kitchen manager notices her, but doesn’t say anything.

The automatic soap-dispensing unit has had a slow leak for several weeks and is putting liquid compound on the tile floor. While working, S slips and falls, cracking her head on the tile floor, which results in a severe concussion. She remains in the hospital for more than a week, unable to see.

The camp denies full liability, citing contributory negligence on the part of the camper’s flip-flops. What are the liability issues in this case? Is there negligence? Is S an employee of C or a paying camper (guest)? What is the standard of care?

The Basic Standard in Tort Liability (the liability for a civil wrong), is based on a Standard of Care. That is the care a person is held liable for and is required to exercise, such as the ordinary or due care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in the same or similar circumstance.

What are the characteristics of a reasonable person? A child is generally not expected to act as a reasonable adult, but rather his or her standard is compared to that of other children the same age. However, in some cases, the courts may apply an adult standard to children (minors) who engage in certain adult activities—cooking over a campfire or baking s’mores for younger campers.

Camp leaders should be aware there are different degrees in the standard-of-care doctrine. What then is the camp’s liability for food service-related accidents or injuries?

It encompasses the theory of negligence—holding a person or organization legally responsible for any incident resulting in harm, such as carelessness or failure to perform under a given standard of care. In most cases, the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff, and this person must prove the following:

▪ The person or organization owed a duty of care to the injured party. If someone unassociated with camp steps into the kitchen without observing an employee entrance-only sign, and causes personal injury, it is doubtful that he or she could recover under the negligence theory.

▪ The person or organization failed to fulfill the expected standard of care, including failure to act.

▪ The person or organization caused the accident or injury, resulting in harm.

The best method in negligence prevention is a sound education. In the camp kitchen, this means good organizational skills and diligent management. Meeting and/or exceeding standards set by associations, health departments, and state and national restaurant associations is certainly a start towards prevention of injuries and accidents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a reliable source for standards awareness as well.

George Hughes, M.BA., J.D., is an Independent Management Consultant for the Hospitality Industry; he is not practicing law. He may be reached at 214-385-0583and

------------------------------- Sidebars --------------------------------
The Basics:
The Food Service Director should hold a current management certificate in food service.

Kitchen Staff should know local health and safety regulations. Individual food-handler cards proving completion of a certified course are preferred.

Prevent Food Contamination by serving hot foods hot and cold foods cold; maintaining personal and environmental sanitation procedures; adhering to proper food-storage procedures and product-rotation practices.

These practices also mean taking routine and accurate temperatures of uncooked and cooked food, and keeping daily records.

Make sure that kitchen equipment is in Proper Working Order and that Every Staff Member is well instructed in his or her duties.
Third-Party Food Service
In order to maximize facility use, many camps will permit guests or organizations to provide their own food service. Camps often lease their facilities for special events like weddings, family reunions, or private parties where the food is prepared in the camp kitchen by sources other than the site’s staff. In these cases, the camp should invoke a food-service liability-release agreement.

It is very tempting for camps to cultivate gardens or use local farmers’ market vendors. It is best practice to call on dependable food purveyors who carry sufficient liability insurance, follow food safety standards, and are approved by the USDA. Many food-service contract companies require suppliers to provide proof of a food-safety program; as a result, they carry large-product liability insurance.

When serving food to children, safety is not only critical, it’s amplified. Contamination is extremely serious and can only be mitigated by proper food-processing, handling, and meeting or exceeding the standard of care.