Case Synopsis: An elementary school age child was injured from a fall during outdoor lunchtime recess. The day in question was a sunny, cool autumn day. The playground was dry with no leaves or other debris on the ground. The playground area was an open public area but reserved for the exclusive use of the school when in session. It was composed of a large, grassy area with three ball fields and three separate pieces of climbing equipment (including the monkey bars from which the child fell). The equipment was permanently anchored in a fibar ® pit. The equipment was clustered and located approximately 10 yards from the school building.
Safe school playground milieu is maintained by anticipating, recognizing and addressing multiple potential or impending dangers. According to the CDC, each year in the United States, hospital emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries. School recess playground activities inherently involve some dangers of the students’ physical safety. So how can we conclude if this fall or in fact any fall, was or was not a result of negligence?
Expert Analysis: It is the responsibility of the school district in the proper designing, constructing and maintaining of safe equipment and grounds; proper planning and putting into place safe school policies and procedures; and providing proper student supervision to appropriately address all these potential dangers. A physical inspection of the playground reviewed included an assessment of: the playground layout; the equipment recommendations for this age group; the surfacing: the equipment and surface materials, any potential hazards including sharp points; potential tripping or suspended hazards; and any possible crush and/or shearing points. The expert concluded that the playground was properly designed. The equipment was well used and well-worn but well preserved. The expert concluded that the playground, including the equipment, was in satisfactory condition and well maintained.
As for school policies, there were regular comprehensive physical inspections of the grounds and equipment with corrective actions taken where and when indicated; the children were all peers (composed of only two consecutive grades) thus age separation was not a factor; there were no conflicting or overlapping activities; transitions from place to place were well planned and well executed; signage was evident; there were no “outsiders” present; and the equipment was appropriate for that age group. The expert concluded that the plans and protocols in place were well formed and well followed.
As for supervision, there were a sufficient number of school aides on duty. They were positioned properly ensuring proper sight lines (and in fact and there was an extra adult present to cover the other school aides in case another adult had to leave for an “emergency”). The expert concluded that the level of and practice of supervision was appropriate.
It was obvious that school playground recess activities (as is in all outdoor physical activities) have some inherent dangers, but that in this case those dangers were properly addressed. The school district, the principal and staff planned and instituted responsible and reasonable planning and protocols. They met “industry standards”. Thus, the defendants were not negligent.
Result: Case settled before trial.
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