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Staff file photo / Renee Barnett helped her then-4-year-old daughter cross the Ring Trek at the community park in St. Elmo in 2016. A child was injured in the area in June 2019, leading to a lawsuit that was recently settled with the city of Chattanooga.

Chattanooga has reached a $45,000 settlement in a lawsuit brought by a man whose son was injured at the St. Elmo Community Playground in June 2019.

According to the lawsuit, Jeffery Hilkert took his two children to play at the park shortly before noon on June 3, 2019. Hilkert said his oldest son was playing in an area of the playground known as the "Ring Trek" when he fell from a "partially submerged tire" and hit the ground, which Hilkert said caused severe fractures to his arm.

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Hilkert took his son to an emergency room, where he said the injuries required orthopedic surgery.

Photographs taken a day after the incident show the area below the "Ring Trek" did not have any "resilient ground covering" — soft ground covering like sand, mulch or rubber mats that provide for soft landings when children fall. The area was therefore was not suitable for children to play on, the lawsuit claimed.

The same photos show yellow signs on the equipment that say: "To avoid serious injury a resilient ground cover of 10 [inches minimum] must be maintained around this structure."

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Settlement agreement between Chattanooga and family of injured child

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The suit claims the city either purposefully removed the soft material from the playground surface, exposing children to the dangerous hard ground, or allowed it to "deteriorate, erode or wash away." In either instance, the lawsuit said, the city provided no warning the ground covering was no longer present.

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The lawsuit claimed the city was aware the playground was in disrepair and had contracted an inspector to evaluate it. That inspector generated a report on the safety of the playground on Jan. 9, 2019, that showed 27 out of 30 inspection areas in the park required high priority maintenance.

According to the suit, the report also advised that "due to all the non-compliant hazards, the severity of the hazards and upkeep and maintenance requirements necessary for this playground, it is strongly recommended the entire playground area be removed and replaced."

The lawsuit claimed that in ignoring recommendations made in the initial report, the city "knowingly endangered the safety of children" visiting the playground.

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In the lawsuit, Hilkert requested damages in the amount of $75,000, plus court costs and expenses, and noted his son has incurred and would likely continue to incur significant medical expenses for treatment of his injuries.

Through the settlement, he will receive $45,000. The city admitted no liability as part of the settlement, which states, "this agreement is the compromise of doubtful and disputed claims."

City Attorney Emily O'Donnell declined an opportunity to comment, citing limitations on what she is able to discuss.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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