Symonds v. City of Pawtucket – Playground Injury Liability


Parents and caregivers may expect that when children scale jungle gyms or sail down slides, there may be an occasional bump or bruise. What they don’t anticipate is that a defect in equipment or failure to maintain it will result in serious injury with long-term consequences. 

Unfortunately, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, this happens all too often. Annually, about 200,000 children under 14 are injured in playground accidents. Of those, nearly half are serious, involving things like broken bones, concussions, internal injuries, dislocations and even amputations. Most of these incidents occur either at schools or at daycare facilities, though many happen on public playgrounds as well.

The question of liability in these cases can be a tricky one. It often depends heavily on who owns the playground equipment and the relationship between that owner and the child. This is what establishes “duty of care,” essential to proving negligence. For example, a school or daycare facility owes a duty of care to protect and supervise a student, while a city that owns a public park doesn’t necessarily owe the same duty to a child brought to play by his or her parents.

Although any lawsuit against a government entity (schools included) can be challenging, that’s not to say they are pointless. Particularly if the playground injuries are severe, it’s worth at least consulting with a lawyer to examine your legal options for compensation. If not the school district or city, one might look to see whether a product liability lawsuit against a manufacturer would be appropriate. It all depends on the individual circumstances.

In the case of Symonds v. City of Pawtucket, recently before the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the question was whether a city should be held liable for injuries sustained by a child playing at a public park. Central to this case was the state’s “Recreational Use Statute.” Florida has one too. It’s codified in F.S. 375.251. The law provides broad legal protections for land owners who offer their property for free for purposes of recreational use.

According to court records in the Symonds case, plaintiff was a minor when, in March 2003, she was playing at a jungle gym at a public park when a wooden piece from the equipment broke off and punctured her skin. Plaintiff asserts the injury was the result of the poor condition/ maintenance of the equipment. The wood was reportedly split, slivered and frayed.

Plaintiff contacted the city parks department to inform them of the injury and was told by an employee she was not aware it was the city’s responsibility to maintain the playground equipment. More than a year later, the jungle gym was replaced by new, non-wooden equipment.

Plaintiff then filed a lawsuit, to which defendant responded it was immune under the state’s recreational use statute. Defense filed motion for a summary judgment, arguing it was immune from litigation because the park was open to the public for free recreation and there was no evidence the city acted maliciously or willfully in failing to address a dangerous condition. In fact, there was no evidence presented the city had prior knowledge of the problem.

Trial court held a hearing on this motion, and granted it, finding plaintiff had not presented any evidence showing the equipment was dangerous, damaged or deteriorated, and further no evidence to show the city had prior knowledge of any previous related injuries on the equipment.

Plaintiff appealed, but the state supreme court affirmed.

It’s important to note that while state recreational use statutes do provide a degree of immunity to entities like this city, that immunity isn’t absolute and there are conditions under which a successful lawsuit can be made. Contact us today to learn more about the specific legal strategies that may be effective in your case.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (561) 347-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Symonds v. City of Pawtucket, Nov. 3, 2015, Rhode Island Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Former Sorority Sister Suffers Heel Injury, Sues National Chapter for Premises Liability, Oct. 30, 2015, Fort Myers Playground Injury Attorney Blog