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Play or pay?

Cities and towns are offering a wider array of recreational activities than ever before. These recreational activities are being used by people of all ages and abilities, some requiring special considerations.

With increased activities comes an increased potential for injuries and liability claims. Many users, particularly children, are injured each year.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's statistics show that annually more than 200,000 children are treated in emergency rooms for injuries sustained on playground equipment. Seventy-six percent of these injuries occurred on public playgrounds. Playground-related deaths primarily involved strangulation from ropes and clothing, followed by falls, and equipment tipping over or structural failure.

Major causes of public playground/park injuries

  • falls (44 percent)

  • equipment-related breakage, tip over, design and assembly (23 percent)

  • entrapment

  • colliding with other children or stationary equipment

Properly designed and maintained parks and playgrounds are the keys to keeping residents safe and reducing the entity's exposure to liability.

While there are no federal laws mandating playground safety standards, the CPSC's "Handbook for Public Playground Safety" and the American Society for Testing and Materials" standard (F 1487-95 - Consumer Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use) have become the industry standard.

Failure to abide by the guidelines and standards could be costly for a municipality if it becomes involved in a lawsuit.

The South Carolina State Supreme Court noted in Ellege v. Richland/Lexington School District Five that "the general rule is that evidence of industry standards is admissible to establish the standard of care in a negligence case. The evidence of CPSC guidelines and ASTM standards-is exactly the type of evidence contemplated by this general rule."

Parks and recreation departments should review the CPSC guidelines and the ASTM standard to ensure their facilities and equipment are safely designed and assembled. They should conduct periodic inspections, document any maintenance performed and use proper signage where necessary.

The bottom line is to review each facility, playground and activity to determine the associated liability risks then develop a plan to manage them.

The SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund, the property and liability program sponsored by the Municipal Association, is creating a toolkit for its members to help reduce the frequency and severity of claims associated with parks and recreation activity.