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Chapman v. United States

January 22, 2007

SHACOA CHAPMAN, AN INFANT BY HER G/A/L TAHEESHA CHAPMAN, AND TAHEESHA CHAPMAN, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hughes, U.S.M.J.

OPINION AND JUDGMENT

Having consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, this case was tried to the Court on January 16, 17 and 19, 2007. The Complaint was filed in May 2002, but after discovery began, the case was administratively terminated when the Plaintiff's father, serving in the military, was transferred overseas. After the family's return to the United States, discovery was completed, at which time the case was referred to Court Arbitration. After Arbitration proved unsuccessful, the case was again reopened, final preparations for trial were made, and the trial on liability issues commenced, the issues of liability and damages having been previously bifurcated for trial by the Court. After a motion by Defendants for Judgment as a Matter of Law at the conclusion of Plaintiff's case, the only remaining claim is one of negligent supervision.

Generally, Plaintiff asserts that the Defendants, Program Assistants for a Summer Camp at Fort Monmouth, were negligent in not seeing and stopping the Plaintiff from playing a game of tag on the jungle gym on the outside playground of the Camp. The Plaintiff, six years old at the time and apparently trying to avoid the tag, jumped off the middle of a circular slide, thereby breaking her arm and causing serious injury. The Defendants, again generally, claim that they, and the Party in interest, the United States, were not negligent as they were abiding by generally accepted standard operating procedures at the time of the accident and, in any event, the Plaintiff's injury was caused by her act of jumping from the slide, not by anything the Defendants agents did or did not do.

I. EVIDENCE

At trial, the Court heard testimony from the Plaintiff Shacoa Chapman ("Shacoa") who testified as to the events in question, as well as her mother who testified to her responding to the scene. Also testifying to the events were the three Program Assistants, or Adult Supervisors, January Delonardo, Jamie Cullen, and Madiline Jackson, with Ms. Jackson's deposition being presented to the Court by question and answer by a paralegal. The Court also permitted, over the objection of Defense Counsel, an expert witness, Steve Bernheim, to offer opinion in the field of playground safety and child supervision. After conducting a preliminary inquiry*fn1 and based on his long experience evaluating playgrounds and instruction manuals for child supervision, the Court determined that Mr. Bernheim, for the purposes of this particular trial, had sufficient expertise so as to assist the trier-of-fact in arriving at a verdict. The Court also heard testimony, via videoconferencing, of Janey Frances Kipps (formerly Baca), Coordinator of Child & Youth Services who testified as to the development and importance of standard operating procedures and training modules. Finally, the Defense offered a single witness, Terry Stone, the immediate supervisor of the three Program Assistants, who testified principally about the playground equipment and certain emails and accident reports describing the accident.

The Court has also considered exhibits that were admitted into evidence during the course of the trial. Plaintiffs offered the following:

P-2: Standard Operating Procedure for Supervision of Children, signed by Janey K. Baca, Coordinator, Child & Youth Services.

P-5: Accident Report, Fort Monmouth Child & Youth Services, dated June 30, 1999.

P-6: Accident Report, Fort Monmouth Child & Youth Services, dated June 30, 1999, with update dated July 1, 1999.

P-13: Report of Unusual Occurrence, dated June 30, 1999, signed by Terry P. Stone.

P-14: Print of e-mail of June 30, 1999 from Terry Stone to Janey Baca.

P-20: School Age Staff Training Program, Module 1, "Safe", marked PJD-1 on July 16, 2005.

Defendant offered the following exhibits: D-1 through D-13, photographs and enlarged photographs of the jungle gym from various angles and D-18, an aerial diagram of the jungle gym.

Finally, the parties had also stipulated to a number of facts that were contained in a document marked Court Exhibit 1.

II. STIPULATED FACTS*fn2

A. The United States of America, through the Department of the Army, operated a child care program known as School Age Services on the premises of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, providing child care services for the children of persons affiliated with the Department of the Army. B. On June 30, 1999, Shacoa Chapman, the daughter of an active-duty member of the Army, was attending the summer child care program conducted by School Age Services.

D. On June 30, 1999, Shacoa Chapman sustained a personal injury while she was using playground equipment on an outdoor playground on the premises operated by School Age Services.

E. At the time that Shacoa Chapman sustained her injury, three employees of School Age Services were present at the outdoor playground area: January Delonardo, Jamie Cullen and Madiline Jackson.*fn3 None of these employees saw Shacoa Chapman's accident occur. All three employees first became aware that Shacoa Chapman has been involved in an accident and had sustained an injury when Shacoa approached them following the accident and so informed them.

F. The playground equipment on which Shacoa Chapman was playing at the time of her accident consisted of several different components which were connected in linear fashion such that the children could move through the length of the apparatus and access all of the components. For ease of reference, this playground equipment may hereafter be referred to as a "jungle gym."

G. At the far end of the "jungle gym" was a spiral slide.

H. Shacoa Chapman sustained her injury when she hit the ground.

L. School Age Services had adopted a written Standard Operating Procedure for the Supervision of Children, signed by Janey K. Baca, ...


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