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EXCLUSIVE: Dangerous Fast Food Playgrounds

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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 a child who was severely injured in one of their playgrounds.

dangerous burger king playground

In August of 2005, then 8-year-old Jacob Buckett, his father and 3-year-old sister went to lunch at a Burger King in Temecula, Calif. In a matter of seconds, 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 which put him in a coma for two months, in the hospital for six months and has 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.

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On his behalf, 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 gets frustrated easily and often has temper tantrums. "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.

Dangerous Playgrounds

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.

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.

Dangerous Playgrounds

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 play, 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.

Jake's dad Kevin tells momlogic, "No words at this time could adequately convey our thoughts. Though we are concerned with playground safety, our primary concern is for Jake's recovery and the stability of our family. This settlement is merely the end of the beginning of a very long marathon. It has been three and a half years since Jake's injury and the fight for his future has really just begun. Though we are bone-weary from this struggle, our faith in God carries us and we will not stop until every last stone has been turned over. Jake's resources and the love and support of many will be used to that end. Though set back by his injury, Jake touches everyone he meets with his faith, his strength, his compassion and his irrepressible joy. Those qualities were there before and are still there today

We pray for the day when Jake can enjoy the quality of life that many take for granted, that he will become independent, the he will meet the girl of his dreams and raise a family of his own. We also pray for his mom and sisters, whose hearts, though broken by this tragedy, will again rise from the ashes so they can again see the light of day and experience the joy they so richly deserve. Finally, we pray for those who struggles mirror ours. There are many thousands in the same boat who need hope, who want a future. For Jake's sake and theirs, we hope it happens."

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25 comments so far | Post a comment now
connie March 26, 2009, 7:15 PM

however, IF BK was in a safety violation in any tiny detail they will be held liable. technically they are both to blame
20 million is too high
I know a female MD that was run over by a big rig truck/driver fell asleep. they injuries were serious 13 surgeries & 400K, the truck compant refuse to pay a penny

Johnny Tee March 26, 2009, 7:58 PM

Crystal, Chris, Annie almost sound too excited - slow down. Connie definitely is a cuckoo bird. Get a life people!

Elizabeth March 26, 2009, 8:28 PM

It is interesting how judgmental people are who know nothing of the specific details of this case. how would you feel if your child was brain injured and needed round the clock care for his now shortened life- how much could someone pay you to take on a child like this?? how angry would you be if a business did not spend a couple of hundred dollars to make a playground safe even though others had been injured? how do you know the parent was not watching the child or to those who claim to diagnose him as autistic from a picture- what is burger king supposed to say “yes it was all my fault” - of course they blame the parent- wake up if it wasnt for lawsuits big businesses would have no incentive to make their areas safe for families.
— Elizabeth

Jake's Dad March 26, 2009, 9:55 PM

Everyone please calm down. To make such judgements from a web story, pics, etc. is not wise. You do not know the details and you do not deserve to know them. You think you know the whole story and just be grateful that your life was not put on parade. Things like these happen in seconds. Noone is the perfect parent, but those that truly know us would greatly disagree with you.

I think many of you are wrongflly jealous, thinking his parents are financially benefiting from this. this could not be farther from the truth and Jake’s resources will be used to help make him better, if it is even possible at this point.

Jake autistic? Really, are you kidding?

For what its worth, we did not pursue this story. We did not want it out there because of people like you who would say and think such things. Shame on you!


N March 27, 2009, 9:56 AM

if the father knew it was dangerous then why let his kid play on it in the first place. another stupid lawsuit by stupid people.


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