The bright, welcoming playground at a fast food restaurant is a magnet for kids and a draw for parents. But behind the colorful façade of the child-friendly wonderland lurks a potential danger zone. Momlogic has learned a Burger King franchise in Southern California has reached a $20 million, out-of-court settlement with the family of a child who was severely injured in one of their playgrounds.

Left: Jacob Buckett today; Right: Jacob Buckett at 8 years old

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In August, 2005, then 8-year-old Jacob Buckett, his father and younger sister went to lunch at a Burger King in Temecula, Calif. In a matter of minutes, Jacob climbed up the horizontal support poles of the play structure and suddenly lost his grip. He came crashing down, cracking his head on the tile floor. His father Kevin recalls that the horrific noise sounded "as if you took a bowling ball and dropped it about ten feet on the floor." Jacob suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with permanent, lifelong impairments.

The Buckett family claims the franchise owner and its parent company Burger King knew the jungle gym was dangerous but never bothered to fix the problem. They argued the playground had significant safety risks such as a lack of "no-climb netting" around the structural poles and not enough floor padding. They say the restaurant owner knew about the potential hazards because of prior accidents.

In addition, they said the restaurant's franchise owner, The Breckenridge Group, failed to safeguard the poles that were used by children daily as monkey bars. The restaurant never posted warning signs and refused to retrofit the structure. Even after Jacob's near-death experience, the playground remained unchanged... three years later.
Jacob's parents sued the franchise owner and parent company, arguing Burger King was liable under the principles of "ostensible agency." That means parents reasonably relied on the franchisor and its specific restaurant branding to ensure a safe product. The family's attorney, Christopher Aitken, said, "Most families, like the Bucketts, do not come into fast food restaurants with any playground safety expertise. They rely on the restaurant, through their branding and safety programs, to ensure a safe product for their children to play," Burger King ultimately settled with the Bucketts for $20 million.

These commercial structures, known as "soft-contained playgrounds," like those at Burger King and other fast food restaurants, are not necessarily more dangerous than any public playground. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ERs treat more than 200,000 children every year for playground-related injuries.

Today, Jacob Buckett is 12 years old, with the maturity level of a child half his age. The brain damage left him with partial paralysis and severe emotional and cognitive problems. He cannot wipe himself after using the bathroom. He gets frustrated easily and often has temper tantrums. He lacks impulse control, which could lead to dangerous behavior. "Before the accident, he would talk all the time about getting married and having children," said his mother, Julie, who now wonders, "Will he ever have the mental ability to even take care of himself?"

Jacob's condition has devastated his family -- especially his father, Kevin, who witnessed the accident. "There are times when it's just so overwhelming, the weight is just too much to bear." The family hopes shedding light on this issue will put the fast food restaurant industry on notice. "We are pleased to see that after the Buckett incident, the fast food chain finally started implementing an inspection system for such playgrounds to make sure they are safe for families," said Aitken.

The multi-million dollar settlement will pay for Jacob's enormous medical bills, 24-hour attendant care and ongoing rehabilitation therapies.

Major fast food chains like Burger King, McDonald's and Chuck E. Cheese's all have playgrounds.

The enticing play zones lure children while restaurants rake in billions of dollars in additional profit. But children could pay the ultimate price if they're not careful playing at some of these playgrounds.

Fast food restaurants argue they're not responsible for safety because they hire independent companies to build the play structures, despite spending big money to market and brand the equipment. In a written statement to momlogic, Burger King spokeswoman Denise Wilson wrote: "Burger King Corp. has stringent playground safety and cleanliness procedures for all its BURGER KING® restaurants. An independent, third party company annually inspects playgrounds at both company and franchised restaurants."

The Bucketts' attorney argued Burger King provided no oversight or inspections to ensure its franchisee restaurants followed playground safety standards. "The fast food chains certainly stand to profit for the rise of sales that such playgrounds provide. It is this lack of third party safety inspections, or oversight, that can cause major injuries such that befell young Jacob Buckett," said Aitken.

Burger King insists its restaurants complied with the national standards set by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) for soft-contained playgrounds and use "only approved playground manufacturers can provide equipment and repairs to BURGER KING® restaurants."

In addition, the fast food giant blamed Jacob's father for not properly supervising his child on the playground. The Bucketts' attorney proved his point with a video surveillance tape that showed children misusing the playground on a regular basis.

Each restaurant chain is responsible for self-policing its playground safety. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a list of set guidelines and regulations, but there isn't enough staff to enforce the rules.

"The government doesn't seem to pay as much attention to children as they do adults," said Donna J. Thompson, Ph.D., Executive Director for the National Program for Playground Safety. "If something is going to kill or badly injure a child, the inspector should tell the owner and they should shut the place down until it's fixed." A restaurant's franchise owner is the one responsible for hiring an outside inspector to periodically check the equipment.

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The CPSC has taken action against fast food restaurants that violate safety codes. In 1999, the agency fined McDonald's $4 million in an effort to improve reporting and the structural integrity of its soft playgrounds. "CPSC is empowered to act when there's a violation of a voluntary standard. The agency has the ability to investigate when there is an incident brought to our attention," said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. But in the case of Jacob Buckett, the restaurant did not have an inspection system to detect safety issues and any effort to upgrade the playground fell through the cracks.

The playgrounds at fast food restaurants are often as much as a draw for kids as the french fries and cheeseburgers.

While the padded structures may seem like the perfect place to let your child run wild, these parks can pose a serious risk of injury and even death. Parents may assume these soft-contained playlands are safe and that the restaurant assumes responsibility if a child is hurt. But this is not always the case.

Bottom line: don't expect anyone to be watching your kids. "If there are signs indicating the restaurant is not responsible for injuries, then it's up to the adults to supervise the kids," said Donna J. Thompson, Ph.D., the Executive Director for the National Program for Playground Safety. "A lack of supervision results in 40% of playground injuries, so supervision is very important."

Thompson offers these safety tips when taking your child to a playground:
- Make sure children are on age-appropriate equipment.
- Be sure there's plenty of soft surfacing under and around the structure.
- Only allow the permitted number of children to play at the same time.
- Check to see that the equipment is tight against the wall to prevent strangulation.
- And lastly, be sure to keep a close eye on your children at all times.

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