John Kenison: Campgrounds shouldn’t have blanket immunity

For the Monitor
Published: 4/11/2018 12:10:06 AM

As a lawyer who has represented both insurance companies and injured individuals in negligence claims, I write today in opposition to a bill before state legislators that would grant blanket immunity to a class of private businesses: campgrounds.

If passed, Senate Bill 501 would allow campground owners who have acted negligently, or unreasonably, to avoid responsibility for any injuries that were caused by their negligence. If a business is charging people money to come on to their property, patrons should have a reasonable expectation of safety. If someone is negligent, they should be held responsible.

It is unwise to create a law where an individual (in this case, a camper) has their constitutional rights taken away before an act even occurs – that is not how we do things in New Hampshire.

When any person or entity fails to act reasonably and someone is injured as a result, they should be accountable for those actions. That is how this country has worked since its founding. Insurance companies make a profit by collecting premiums from their insureds, most of whom never have claims brought against them. If they do have a claim, their insurance is in place to protect them. The insurance company analyzes the risk at hand, and will either fight the claim, settle or go to trial. Our citizens have a right to a jury trial of their peers as laid out in our Constitution – this is in place to decide controversies over who is at fault, and for what. The injured person has the burden of proving that an entity was negligent, and the business owner only has to act reasonably under current law to prevail in claims against them.

The law simply requires the owner, in this case a campground owner operating a private business, to act reasonably. To provide immunity would be a blanket license for campground owners to ignore reasonable safety precautions that are in place to protect families that have paid for a vacation.

If this bill were passed, and an injury occurred, the burden of responsibility would shift from the negligent party to an innocent victim – who would have no right to recover for their medical bills, cost of property damage and loss of wages during a period of medical recovery. The result is that the injured person could end up on public assistance and/or filing bankruptcy.

SB 501 would give campgrounds (some of which are more like resorts) immunity for their negligence. I pay for homeowners insurance; I pay for auto insurance; I pay for business owners insurance. As a taxpayer, I do not want to subsidize the camping industry (and I love camping) by granting private business owners immunity for their wrongdoing – that is what insurance is for, and why we all pay for it.

Most of New Hampshire’s campground owners are careful business owners who maintain their properties and treat their guests like family. Granting immunity would permit careless businesses to evade accountability for their negligent acts.

It has been claimed the cost of insurance for campgrounds has become too high. While I am not aware of any insurance crisis impacting the New Hampshire camping industry, to the extent there is a problem, insurance reform, rather than governmental shifting of the cost of safety from a private business to the taxpayer, is a much better solution to combating high premiums and keeping costs low for businesses.

If SB 501 becomes law, consider taking your families to other nearby states to camp where your rights will remain intact.

(John Kenison is a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, an avid camper and hiker, and attorney practicing in Manchester. He lives in southern New Hampshire with his wife and two children.)

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