Who’s Liable When Dangerous or Broken Playground Equipment Causes Injury?

Your child may deserve compensation for injuries caused by broken or defective playground equipment. Learn how to prove liability and build a strong claim.

Every year, more than 200,000 children need emergency care after getting hurt in playground accidents.¹

Playground injuries happen at schools, daycare centers, shopping centers, private homes, and more. Three out of four child playground injuries are related to play equipment, like swings and climbers.

Children who are badly injured because of unsafe playground equipment are entitled to financial compensation for their damages. Here’s where we unpack what parents need to know about playground equipment liability and compensation.

What to Do After a Playground Accident

Your actions following your child’s injury will make a big difference in a personal injury claim or lawsuit.

Get Prompt Medical Care for Your Child

Take your child to the nearest hospital emergency room or urgent care center, or contact your child’s pediatrician the same day as the accident. Tell every medical provider who cares for your child how and when they were injured.

Be specific about the piece of playground equipment that harmed your child. It’s important to directly connect the injuries to the faulty equipment.

Follow the doctor’s orders and take your child to appointments as required.

Gather Evidence of Fault and Damages

To succeed in your child’s injury claim, you need credible evidence. Whether you believe the equipment manufacturer or the property owner is to blame for your child’s injury, you have the burden of proving the at-fault party’s negligence.

Take Photographs and Video

Photographs and video of your child’s injury and where it happened are graphic evidence. Take as many close-up pictures and videos of the broken equipment as you can. Your photos can reveal the nature of the design flaw or product defect.

Example: Photographic Evidence of Broken Swing

Susan brought her six-year-old daughter Charlotte to a playground in a local public park. The city installed the playground equipment approximately ten years ago. The seat of each swing was made of plastic.

While Charlotte and three other children were swinging, the seat holding Charlotte suddenly snapped in half and shards of splintering plastic flew into the air.

Unfortunately, Charlotte was at the top of her swing when the seat broke. She fell about eight feet to the ground, breaking her leg in two places. Susan and the other parents rushed to help her.

While waiting for paramedics to arrive, Susan asked another parent to use her cell phone and take multiple photos and video of the splintered and broken seat. The parent also photographed the shards of plastic that fell on the ground. Also, the parent videoed Charlotte as she lay on the ground, cradled by her mother, crying and screaming in pain.

The photos and video taken at the scene provided conclusive evidence of the shattered seat, the time and location of Charlotte’s injuries, and the child’s pain and suffering.

Review Building Codes

Building code violations are often prima facie (a Latin term meaning “at first look”) evidence of negligence, meaning the negligence is obvious unless proven otherwise.

Most states use U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPC) guidelines for playgrounds and incorporate them into their building codes. State code requirements normally apply to outdoor playgrounds accessible by the public, including those on private property, such as churches, child daycare facilities, apartment complexes, and homeowner associations in gated communities.

Most insurance companies and defense attorneys would rather settle your claim than have proof of building code violations brought up in court, increasing the risk of a huge verdict against their client.

Example: Jungle Gym Code Violation

Jim and Becky dropped their three-year-old daughter Carmen off at daycare. The daycare center property had a playground with swings, monkey bars, a see-saw, slides, and a jungle gym. To save money, the daycare center had an employee design and build the jungle gym.

The employee built the jungle gym with several steps, platforms, and ramps. However, the employee failed to follow local building code requirements for outdoor play structures.

Carmen was playing with other children on the jungle gym when her head got stuck in an opening made too small for children of her age and size.

When she couldn’t pull her head back through the opening, Carmen began to panic and cry out. While thrashing around, she suffered deep gashes to her neck and ears. A daycare employee unintentionally made Carmen’s injuries worse by pulling on her torso to try to dislodge her.

When paramedics arrived, Carmen had to be forcibly held under a blanket while the jungle gym was sawed into pieces to get her free. Carmen was so terrified by the ordeal that her behavior regressed, and she became upset every time her wounds had to be cleaned and bandaged.

Jim and Becky sued the daycare center. To support their claim, their attorney went to the city’s building department where they looked up the construction codes regulating playground equipment.

It was clear that there were multiple playground safety violations. Jim and Becky used proof of the code violations as per se negligence. As a result, the daycare’s insurance company settled the claim immediately.

Get Witness Statements

Written testimony from witnesses, especially independent Good Samaritans, can be valuable evidence. Independent witnesses have no financial interest in the outcome of your child’s injury claim, making them credible and convincing.

The last thing an insurance company wants is to have a parade of parents testifying in court about the excruciating pain they saw your child go through.

Example: Witnesses to Child’s Fall from Slide

John took his five-year-old son Everett to a birthday party for a neighbor’s daughter. The birthday party was at a local fast-food restaurant with a playground on its premises.

While climbing up the ladder steps to the slide, one of the wooden steps broke off. As it did, Everett fell, hitting his head on the hard ground.

Everett was still unconscious when fire and rescue arrived minutes later. Paramedics revived him after several minutes. Everett was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull and a serious concussion.

Fortunately, there were several other neighbors at the party with their children. Several parents took pictures of the slide, the broken step, and Everett’s blood on the ground.

John asked several parents to write down what they saw and heard. He asked the witnesses to clarify how Everett used the equipment properly. John wanted them to emphasize that Everett didn’t do anything to contribute to his injuries. The witnesses then signed and dated their statements.

Gather Proof of Damages

Collect copies of your child’s medical records and bills, even if all or part of the bills were paid by health insurance or CHIPS. You deserve compensation for the full amount of your child’s medical treatment.

Organize all your documentation, including copies of your child’s medical records and bills, and receipts for related out-of-pocket expenses.

Who is Liable for Your Child’s Injuries?

Before you can pursue compensation for your child, you’ll have to figure out who is liable, meaning legally responsible, for your child’s playground accident and why they should pay.

It’s important to look carefully at the causes and circumstances surrounding your child’s injuries. You may find that more than one person, business, or entity (like a school district) may be financially responsible.

It helps to understand some legal terms used in connection with injury claims:

  • Duty of Care means a legal obligation to avoid causing harm to others. A school has a legal obligation to ensure playground equipment is safe.
  • Negligence happens when a property owner or manager, or playground equipment manufacturer fails in their duty of care.
  • Liability means responsibility. The negligent party, like a property owner, is usually liable for the injured child’s damages from a playground accident.
  • Damages for injuries from playground equipment can include medical costs, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and pain and suffering.

Property Owner and Manager Responsibilities

Property owners and managers have a duty of care to make sure all playground equipment and the surrounding area are safe for children. Their duty means they must do everything reasonably possible to ensure the safety and well-being of children invited to use the public playground, including repairing or removing dangerous equipment.

Playground property owners may be schools, daycare providers, mall and restaurant owners, and any other business entity that offers a playground area for visiting children. Property managers can include homeowners’ associations (HOA), apartment management companies, and condominium associations.

Property owners may also be residential homeowners who have playground equipment in their yard.

Failing to install, inspect, or maintain playground equipment properly can make the property owner or manager liable for injuries caused by their negligence.

Case Example: $20 Million Verdict for Child Injured by Swing Set

Carl Thompson was 15 years old when he sat down on a swing set at Lamplight Village residential community to send a text. When Thompson sat on the swing, the 42-pound metal crossbar broke, falling on Thompson’s head and crushing his skull.

Thomson suffered severe traumatic brain injuries that left him with lingering impairments.

Attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Lamplight Village HOA on Thompson’s behalf, blaming the HOA for failing to inspect and maintain the playground equipment properly.

Thomson’s attorneys proved the HOA knew the swing set was dangerous and deliberately chose not to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to have the swing set professionally inspected and maintained.

The jury agreed, awarding $10 million in compensatory damages for Thompson’s pain and suffering and another $10 million in punitive damages.

Manufacturers Have Legal Obligations

Playground equipment manufacturers must abide by standard consumer safety specifications. Design flaws, defects in construction, or failure to provide adequate assembly, installation, and maintenance information can all make the manufacturer liable for your child’s damages.

When a design flaw or equipment construction defect results in a child’s injury, the nature of the flaw or defect is often attributed to the manufacturer’s negligence. This is considered product liability.

Product liability cases are different from other types of injury claims because of the need to prove the product was defective.

Manufacturing corporations have an army of lawyers to fight product liability claims.

Does Your Child Need an Attorney?

If your child has fully recovered from minor playground-related injuries like bumps, bruises, and mild strains, you won’t risk too much by dealing directly with the insurance company.

For example, if your child’s accident occurred while playing in a neighbor’s yard, ask the homeowner for their homeowner’s insurance information. Many homeowner’s policies won’t make you prove negligence for med-pay claims under $1,000. This is a great solution when you only want a small medical bill paid.

Private schools and daycare centers will also have insurance companies that you may contact directly.

Your homeowner’s insurance policy will not cover injuries to members of your household. If your child is injured on playground equipment at home, you may still have a claim against the manufacturer or the retailer who sold you the equipment.

Depending on where you live, even small insurance claims for a child’s injury can be complicated.

Most states have special rules for handling “infant” settlements. Legally, an infant is anyone under the age of majority, usually 18 years old.

An experienced personal injury attorney will look out for your child’s best interest and ensure the at-fault party covers the fees and costs associated with the child’s settlement. Most injury lawyers offer a free consultation and work on a contingency fee basis. This means you won’t owe attorney fees unless they negotiate a settlement or win the case in court.

Contact a law firm specializing in product liability claims. The firm will advance the costs of medical and engineering experts and other expenses that are necessary to face off against a large corporation.

Keep in mind that most playground injuries happen at government-run schools and parks. It’s nearly impossible to win injury claims against government agencies on your own. Government rules are complicated, the deadlines are short, and there’s no room for error.

Playground accidents that result in disfigurement or permanent injuries to children can be complex, high-dollar claims. There’s too much at stake to try handling a child’s injury claim on your own.

Common Playground Equipment Hazards

Playground injuries range from muscle sprains, abrasions (scrapes), and minor cuts and bruises, to bone fractures, head and neck trauma, internal injuries, and strangulation.

Most playground injuries happen to kids at school or daycare play areas. However, the majority of fatal injuries involve home playground equipment.

Common problems with playground equipment include:

  • Manufacturer Defects: Playground equipment is supposed to meet standard consumer safety specifications. Equipment may be faulty from:
    • Design defects, such as openings that can trap a child’s head or leg
    • Construction defects, like poorly fitting pieces, or sharp edges
    • Incorrect or inadequate assembly and maintenance guides
  • Inadequate Maintenance: Playground equipment that was not properly assembled or allowed to deteriorate can be dangerous. Children are often injured by broken, rusty, or failing equipment on public and home playgrounds.  
  • Improper Surfacing: Having the right kind of surfacing under and around playground equipment is critically important for child safety. Recommended surfaces include wood chips, mulch, rubber, and clean sand. The surface material should be deep enough to cushion a child’s fall.
Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>