Liability for Injuries on Public Playgrounds
UPDATED: February 24, 2020
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Who may be liable for a child’s injuries in an accident that occurred in a city park will depend on where the accident happened and the circumstances surrounding it. If the accident involved neglected parts of the landscape (such as a dead tree with falling branches), it might also depend on who was responsible for managing the landscape and the extent of that management duty was fulfilled. There are also legal situations in which, upon examining the above three elements, no one is responsible for a child’s accident. Such situations do sometimes occur, and they are called “acts of God.”
Location of Injury and City's Responsibility
If landscaping, such as trees, are located on a city playground, they likely belong to the city. This may seem like a minor assumption, but in most jurisdictions, the city’s responsibility for maintenance of trees on city property is similar to the responsibility of private landowners for the maintenance of trees on private property. Specifically, the location of the tree trunk tends to be the determining factor for ownership, regardless of the reason the tree was planted. Where the trunk is shared between two properties, ownership, and thus responsibility, is usually shared. These are called “boundary trees” in some jurisdictions. Establishing ownership and responsibility for the trees is critical to knowing if the city would be held liable injuries sustained from falling tree branches in a city park.
If it is established that the trees were on city property or otherwise the responsibility of the city, meaning, significant portions of it interfered with the use of the city-maintained playground, then one must establish whether those trees that injured the child were in fact diseased or dead.
City Liability for Forces of Nature/Acts of God
In general, forces of nature that cause damage, such as a tree branch falling without any interference from a person, are considered an "act of nature" or "act of God" by courts. This prevents the injured party from holding someone legally responsible for injuries on property negligence grounds. However, property owners are typically required to maintain their property, including trees, to prevent harm to others.
In situations involving injury or damage stemming from falling tree branches, courts often reconcile these two ideas by limiting property liability where the fallen branches were healthy. A landowner is held responsible for property negligence if the fallen limbs were dead or diseased and he/she had an opportunity to fix the problem prior to the accident.
It is the city’s responsibility to remove trees or tree parts that interfere with public ways or with the use of public ways. Contrary to popular opinion, the liability of the city is no greater than the liability of a private owner in the same situation. If a tree limb is dead or decaying, the city does have a responsibility to remove it, provided the diseased limb constitutes a danger to the public, or creates a nuisance on someone else’s private property. An investigation by the city always precedes an action like this.
Here, the city may be responsible for the child’s injuries from a dead tree’s falling branches. The determining factor for the city’s liability will likely be the plaintiff's ability to prove property negligence by showing the city knew or should have known that the trees around the playground were dead. For example, if the city recently inspected the area and discovered the dead trees but failed to take action, it will most likely be held responsible for any resulting injuries because it had notice of the danger. If the city did not know about the dead trees and properly maintained the area, then a court may not find it liable.
Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act
There are some jurisdictions where a local government cannot be held liable for ordinary negligence, including failure to maintain trees. In these jurisdictions, such as Illinois, the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act prohibits local entities from being held liable for ordinary negligence. Under the act, only willful and wanton negligence (recklessness) is actionable under the law. However, even in these jurisdictions, there are exceptions to these laws. Sometimes settlement offers are possible as well.
In any case, you should consider speaking with a personal injury attorney about incidents that could possibly involve negligence by the city. An attorney can find out whether the tree branch that injured the child fell as an act of nature or because the city neglected the trees around the playground. The presence of any legal blocks, such as immunity acts, and the availability of any legal remedies, such as statutory or punitive damages, can be examined properly along with the merits of your property liability or property negligence case.