Six-year-old Marlene Escalera climbed into the brightly colored Playland at the McDonald’s in Delano and headed for the “Tug ‘N Turn” merry-go-round. But as she spun with a friend in the large rotating fiberglass tub, her shoelace caught on a loose bolt, ripping her tennis shoe apart and breaking her leg in two places.
Whether the girl’s 1988 injury was a simple childhood accident or part of a pattern that left a trail of injuries all across the country will be decided in a Bakersfield jury trial that started Tuesday.
The Escalera family of Arleta has filed a lawsuit in which it is seeking $10 million in punitive damages, charging that McDonald’s Corp. and the Playland manufacturer knew of equipment defects as early as 1982 but failed to correct them.
With about 3,000 playgrounds nationwide, McDonald’s has become, in effect, the nation’s largest private playground operator. And the lawsuit seeks to show the company was negligent in its oversight of the popular children’s attraction.
Both McDonald’s and the equipment manufacturer vigorously deny responsibility and defend their safety records.
Insurance records obtained by the plaintiffs show more than 1,500 claims against the company for Playland injuries in the past five years. The claims offer a litany of children who break bones when they run into “Fry Trees,” bump their heads on the “Rocky Hamburger Ride” and break teeth falling off “Apple Pie Stools.”
Company documents also show that, as the injury toll mounted on the “Tug ‘N Turn,” McDonald’s officials and the playground manufacturer developed a safety device but did not order that it be installed on nearly 800 “Tug ‘N Turns” already in operation.
“It’s a mistake for parents to think when they’re turning their kids loose in Playland that it’s a safe environment,” said Edward Steinbrecher, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Parents have learned to trust McDonald’s but it’s a misplaced trust.”
Robert Harding, an attorney represeting McDonald’s in the Bakersfield suit, told the jury Tuesday that the charges were “preposterous.” He said McDonald’s acted “in good faith and with a conscious regard for the safety of children.” Harding said that between 1986 and 1990 there was only one accident per year at each Playland nationwide. “That is not an accident rate that is alarming,” he said.
An attorney for the manufacturer said it was not clear that the safety devices would be effective and he blamed the restaurant franchise holder for any problems that resulted.
Developed in the early 1980s, the plastic and fiberglass Playlands are an integral element in a marketing strategy that has helped draw millions of children to the fast-food restaurant. Manufactured by J.B.I. Inc. of Long Beach, the equipment is sold to franchisees for $26,000 and up.
Many of the accidents listed in the insurance records are innocuous cuts and bruises. But others involve broken limbs and other serious injuries. Lawyers for the Escaleras say theirs is the first suit of its kind to go to trial, adding that McDonald’s has settled other claims before trial. Among the claims paid by McDonald’s insurance company since 1986:
* $36,015 to the family of a girl whose neck was injured when she was struck by a falling Playland tree.
* $9,381 to a girl who suffered skull fractures in a fall.
* $1,700 to the family of a boy who fell from a “Hamburger Toy” and broke his arm.
At least 120 claims totaling about $190,000 were paid to families whose children suffered injuries in the Tug N’ Turn, including a severed finger, a dislocated elbow, a concussion and several broken bones.
Marlene’s accident occurred Dec. 26, 1988, during a holiday visit to her grandmother’s home in Delano. As with many children, McDonald’s was her favorite place to eat and play--the previous October, she had received an “Honor Award for Citizenship” from a McDonald’s in Pacoima.
“I wanted to play in the Playland because I just like playing there and it’s sort of fun,” said Marlene, now 9.
After the accident, Marlene was treated at an nearby emergency room and her father, Ruben Escalera, returned to the McDonald’s to photograph the “Tug N’ Turn” and its exposed bolts.
“I couldn’t believe McDonald’s being so big could let something like that go on,” said Escalera, a 48-year-old forklift operator at the GM Van Nuys plant. “It got me mad as heck and it got me madder when I found out more kids had broken their legs.”
Steinbrecher said in an interview he intends to introduce evidence showing the equipment was never tested for safety and that there are no qualified safety engineers on the McDonald’s or J.B.I. staffs. He also said that there is no maintenance manual for the equipment and that McDonald’s never inspected the playgrounds for safety.
Theodore P. Shield, an attorney for J.B.I., said the responsibility for Marlene Escalera’s accident rests with the operator of the Delano McDonald’s, Johnny Munoz, who, he said, neglected to properly maintain the equipment. “The evidence will show that Mr. Munoz never paid any attention to this thing after it was installed . . . and whoever installed it for him didn’t even begin to follow the operating instructions.”
But according to his attorney, Steve Austin, Munoz was never informed of the danger posed by the playground equipment. “McDonald’s and J.B.I. knew before they ever sold it to us in (1983) that they were having problems with this,” Austin said.
Company records show that McDonald’s and J.B.I. officials had been made aware of the problems with the “Tug ‘N Turn” because of accident reports filed by various stores. In February, 1983, one McDonald’s employee noted that five children had suffered broken legs at one Houston restaurant alone.
J.B.I. was sued at least 21 times for injuries on the “Tug ‘N Turns,” Michael Brickler, a J.B.I. official, said in a 1989 deposition. Most of the injuries involved broken limbs caused by shoelaces or clothing being caught in the equipment. “Safety must not have been considered in its full light,” Brickler said.
On Tuesday, J.B.I. attorney Shield told jurors that the company decided to discontinue manufacture of the “Tug ‘N Turn” and all Playland equipment in 1988 because of legal costs associated with injury claims. He said McDonald’s officials agreed to make the “Tug ‘N Turns” inoperable.