Special Needs Child Drown at California Day Camp

Special Needs Child Drown at California Day Camp

Special Needs Child Drown at California Day Camp

Every summer thousands of families with special needs children turn to day camps as a source of recreational opportunity for their children. In the vast majority of cases, day camp visits are accomplished without a serious incident. Unfortunately, there are cases when a child’s visit to day camp ends in a family tragedy.

In this post, the drowning accident lawyer at The Doan Law Firm will cite a recent day camp drowning accident to illustrate some of the legal issues that can arise in child drowning accidents.

The Accident

The following summary of events is taken from reports appearing in the August 13, 2019 online edition of the Pasadena Star-News as well as other sources.

On the morning of June 28th , six-year-old girl identified only as “Roxie” was dropped off at the entrance to  Summerkids, a day camp located in Altadena. Approximately an hour later the girl’s parents, Doug Forbes and Elena Matyas, received a phone call informing them that Roxie had been involved in a near-drowning accident and had been transported to a local hospital. Over the course of the following 24 hours it was determined that Roxie had suffered a major brain injury from which she could not recover. Roxie died the following day after being taken off life support.


According to her parents, Roxie had been previously diagnosed with an unspecified developmental delay that would affect her coordination and other learned motor skills. The parents stated that they informed Summerkids’ director and assistant director of Roxie’s disability and were assured that the staff would closely watch her when she was in the camp’s swimming pool.

On the first day of camp, Roxie and other new campers were tested to evaluate their swimming ability. Roxie’s performance in that test resulted in the camp designating her as a “non-swimmer.” This meant that she would not be allowed in the pool unless she was closely supervised by a member of the camps staff.

On the morning of the accident, 30 campers were in the pool area and were being monitored by four counselors/lifeguards who were trained to certification standards established by the American Red Cross. At some point Roxie, despite her “non-swimmer” status, entered the pool without staff supervision and without any type of personal flotation device.

Over the course of the following six weeks the parents received information from various sources suggesting that the camp’s management and staff may have been less than forthcoming with local law enforcement in the subsequent accident investigation.

The parents are quoted in the Star-News as stating that information provided to them from other sources suggests that:

  • There does not appear to have been any method in place that would have allowed a lifeguard to quickly determine a child’s previously-determined swimming ability.
  • Although they were initially told that Roxie had been in the water for not more than thirty seconds, a personal communication from the deputy medical examiner who performed Roxie’s autopsy states that she had been in the pool for a considerably longer period.
  • Statements made to investigators by camp staffers at different times were to some extent self-contradictory.
  • The lifeguards on duty, for one reason or another, were distracted and were unaware that Roxie was floating in the pool until a passing camp counselor noticed that Roxie was in distress and alerted the lifeguards to her presence.

Legal Issues

Even though the investigation into this tragedy is ongoing, the available information suggests that Summerkids could be held liable for Roxie’s death.

When a child is enrolled in a day camp or some similar operation, the camp has a legal and moral obligation to exercise every reasonable precaution to prevent injury to a camper. In law, this means that operator must anticipate what types of accident could be expected to occur and should then institute policies that will minimize the possibility that an injury. As an example, if a day camp offers swimming and other types of water recreation, then the day camp is obligated to ensure that it has sufficient lifeguards on duty.

In the accident reviewed here, the available information suggests that there were four lifeguards on duty that morning overseeing the 30 campers present. This easily exceeds the American Red Cross recommendation of one lifeguard per fifty swimmers but does not explain how four lifeguards could have missed a six-year-old girl floating in that pool.

Each state is free to enact its own laws regarding day and overnight camps, and California is no exception. However, California does not regulate camps such as Summerkids at the state level. In other words, so long as a camp complies with local laws and regulations (e.g. business licenses, health department inspections and permits, and zoning laws) the state generally has no authority over camp operators unless a violation of state law occurs. However, even if a day camp was in full compliance with every rule and regulation that could apply, compliance with the law is not a defense to an allegation of negligence on the part of a camp or its employees.


In summary, we realize that there will always be drowning accidents that could not have been prevented regardless of the number of precautions taken. We also realize that many drowning accidents could have been prevented had it not been for the negligence of some party other than the victim.

We will be monitoring future developments in this accident and will post updates to this post as indicated.


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