Children run, jump and play... but sometimes they can be injured during their playground fun
You drop your child in the “kiss and go” line at school and wish them a great day as they head off... for learning, friends, activities, lunch, and recess.
Or, maybe your day is made a little easier because Grandma and Grandpa offered to take your little munchkins to the playground so you can have an hour or two of peace and quiet.
Or, perhaps you’re happy to let your kids have free rein of the neighborhood for the day—as long as they’re home by dinner time. You wave them off and figure they’ll hang with friends and entertain themselves by having good, old-fashioned fun.
Regardless of how your daily life unfolds, if you’re a parent of young children, it’s likely that you (or your children) spend at least some time at a playground during their childhood. Nearly every school, park and neighborhood has one, and sometimes it’s a good way for a parent to have a little breather on a shady bench while kids burn off some energy by running, jumping, and climbing.
While this sounds idyllic and like the essence of childhood, the CDC reports that more than 200,000 children are treated in emergency departments each year for playground-related injuries. Specifically, children between the ages of 5-9 suffer more playground injuries than other age groups.
Playground injury statistics
|Playground injury statistics
|Fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations, and amputations
|Percent of non-fatal injuries that occur on public playgrounds, most of which are at schools or daycare centers.
|Percent of children who died from strangulation (of the total number of playground deaths) in a 10-year period.
|Percent of children who died from a fall to the playground surface (of the total number of playground deaths) in the same time period.
|Percent of these fatalities that happened on home playgrounds.
Most dangerous playground equipment
Although design and technology of playground equipment has improved dramatically in recent decades, there are still some playthings that can be inherently dangerous.
Similarly to sandboxes, a ball pit could be a literal pit of germs and bacteria. Have you ever met a child who washes their hands properly? Yes, your child can catch illness passing toys back and forth at school, but the balls at the bottom of the pit just sit there and allow the bacteria to fester because they don’t have as much air flow to the surface. If not cleaned thoroughly and regularly, a ball pit can make your child ill.
And, there’s another danger... part of the fun of a ball pit is to bury yourself beneath the balls. But then, when an unsuspecting child jumps on top, one or both children could wind up injured.
Tetherball, or swingball, was invented in South Africa but is popular on playgrounds across the U.S. The game involves a tall pole with a rope from the top and a volleyball fastened to the other end of the rope. Children stand on either side and hit the ball back and forth, trying to wrap the ball around the pole. The first person to successfully wind the rope around the pole is the winner. Fun, right? Yes, except that there are common injuries when the ball swings around the pole at high speed and hits a child’s back, head or chest.
Trampolines resulted in more than 300,000 injuries requiring medical treatment in a recent year. Most playgrounds don’t have trampolines, but some do. A trampoline that’s not enclosed by a net can be very dangerous, as children (or adults) could be catapulted off the side.
Fortunately, most newer playgrounds are built with slides made from material that isn’t going to burn any little bottoms. But older playgrounds with metal slides could become very hot in the sun and a child could suffer a second-degree burn from a hot metal surface. There have also been instances of children who fall from the top of a high slide.
A sandbox seems safe—you can’t fall off, nothing should hit a child with force—the worst-case scenario would seem to be dirty clothes and needing a bath after playtime.
But that’s not entirely true. A sandbox can be rife with bacteria if it’s not properly and regularly cleaned. There are illnesses and diseases that a child can catch from playing in a sandbox.
Monkey bars and jungle gyms
In other words, climbing equipment. One of the primary factors related to playground injuries is a lack of proper supervision. These kinds of playground staples are ubiquitous but really should be used by older children. If children are climbing, hanging upside down, swinging, etc., they should be supervised by an adult on the ground. This also includes swing rings and other attachments to the equipment.
Teeter-totter (or seesaw)
A smaller child can be thrown off the end of a seesaw if a heavier child is on the other side.
Spinning is fun. But these playthings that allow children to spin fast can be dangerous; if they lose their grip and fall off, they could be seriously injured.
Types of playground liability lawsuits
There are several possibilities for how a playground injury can be handled. If you consult with a lawyer following an injury, they will tell you that there are three primary grounds for a playground-related injury lawsuit:
- Defective design or manufacture of equipment (i.e. product liability claim);
- Premises liability; or
- Negligent supervision.
The facts surrounding the claim will determine which approach is appropriate for your situation.
Product liability is the area of law that governs injuries caused by defective products or manufacturing. If an injury is caused because of a factor related to the manufacture or design of the playground equipment, it would be a product liability lawsuit.
There are three types of product liability lawsuits:
- Manufacturing defect. A defectively manufactured item left the manufacturer in a condition other than the one intended. To put it another way, some error occurred during the manufacturing process that caused the product to become unsafe. In the context of playground equipment, this could be something like the wrong types of screws being used on a part that holds the equipment together, or if a critical component became cracked, broken, or somehow weakened during the manufacturing process.
- Defective design. A product is defectively designed if it fails to perform as safely as a reasonable person would expect. In other words, nothing went wrong during the manufacturing process, the design of the product is simply dangerous.
- Failure to warn. Manufacturers have a duty to warn users of the dangers inherent in their products.
Manufacturers don’t have to warn about every conceivable danger. Rather, manufacturers must only warn about dangers that occur while the product is being used as intended or that can reasonably be anticipated.
For instance, a spinning ride on a playground might require a sign letting the user know they must hold on to a certain handle while riding. The manufacturer cannot guarantee that the child will follow the instructions, but the instructions should be there.
Premises liability is the area of law for injuries that happen as a result of a hazardous condition on property.
This can also be relevant on playgrounds. For example, playgrounds are required to have certain types of ground covering. Some use rubber mulch, pea gravel, sand, wood chips, or engineered wood fibers.
If a child is injured in a fall and the ground cover was not safe enough, deep enough, etc., the property owner could be at fault.
Premises liability could also apply to maintenance of playground equipment.
The property owner or manager is responsible for safe maintenance of a public playground. This includes parks, schools, other municipal grounds, etc. It also includes the homeowner if a child is injured playing on backyard playground equipment.
If a piece of equipment breaks and causes an injury, this could also be the fault of the property owner if it’s the result of poor maintenance. It’s the responsibility of the property owner to ensure that all equipment is in good working order.
Children don’t understand their own strength, speed or limitations. They don’t have the life experience to understand certain types of risk—they don’t necessarily realize that they’ve climbed too high or swung too fast.
The adult must cater their level of supervision to the age of the children, the type of playground, and the needs of the particular children in their care. For example, a capable babysitter who takes a toddler to the playground at the park would be expected to be within arm’s length if the child climbs, expecting that a very young child would not be able to navigate the equipment safely.
By contrast, the recess aide at an elementary school could reasonably give 10-year-olds a good amount of space and trust their judgment when it comes to using equipment designed for children that age. Certainly, it’s the recess aide’s job to watch for unsafe behavior, but they would not be expected to use the same level of vigilance as the babysitter of a toddler.
Who is liable for your child’s injury in a playground accident?
Liability hinges on who is at fault for the accident. Fault isn’t always easy to determine because chances are that no one pushed your child off the jungle gym (although if they did, that’s a different issue ).
The likely first question in determining liability is who was supervising your child at the time they were injured. Maybe it was you. And that’s okay... there’s probably no parent out there who has never taken their eyes off their child for an instant—to look at a text message, wave to a friend on the other side of the road, look up when you hear sirens in the distance, take a sip of your water or coffee—and an instant is all it takes for a child to suffer a playground injury.
But, if your child was in the care of a babysitter, at school, with another child’s parent, or any other adult, this could become an issue. If the adult was not behaving responsibly and attending to your child in a way that was appropriate for the child’s age, skills, and the situation, then you might be able to sue them for negligent supervision related to your child’s playground injury.
If your child’s injury was because of a property hazard or poor maintenance of the playground or its equipment, you can find out who is in charge of keeping it safe. It could be a municipality (i.e. the government agency that runs the public parks), the school district, a private school, a private homeowner, or some other private property (like a church, hotel, etc.).
If the injury was caused by a defect in the manufacturing process of the equipment, the manufacturer would be the appropriate defendant in a lawsuit. You might not be able to ascertain the manufacturer, so you’d likely need to contact the property owner or agency in order to find out. This could be a lengthy process, particularly if it’s an older playground. And, be prepared that it’s not going to be quick or easy—the manufacturer isn’t going to simply accept responsibility. Another wrinkle is that the manufacturer is likely not the installer, so that entity is a possible liable party, too.
Shared fault rules
Depending on what state you’re in, contributory and comparative negligence rules could be factor in your claim. Regardless of who is liable for your child’s playground accident, the defendant is likely to seek out reasons why the child (or the parent) shares fault for their own injury.
For instance, if you make a claim because your child fell and the ground cover wasn’t thick enough, the municipality might try to defend itself by saying that you were not properly supervising the child because they were climbing higher than would be appropriate for a child that age.
These are complicated claims. Anything that involves children, government agencies, multiple defendants, and other extenuating circumstances is going to result in legal wrangling and could require lengthy litigation. Your best chance at receiving compensation for your child’s playground accident injury is to seek the guidance of a qualified, competent personal injury lawyer near you.
Additional information about lawsuits for injuries to children
- Youth Sports Injuries, Accidents, & Liability: When Kids Get Hurt
- Children's Injuries & the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine
- Who's Liable if Your Child is Injured at a Friend's House?
- 10 Common Household Hazards to Your Baby or Young Child
- Swimming Pool Accidents, Injuries & Death