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Fatal Pediatric Head Injuries Caused by Short-Distance Falls

Plunkett, John M.D

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: March 2001 - Volume 22 - Issue 1 - p 1-12

Physicians disagree on several issues regarding head injury in infants and children, including the potential lethality of a short-distance fall, a lucid interval in an ultimately fatal head injury, and the specificity of retinal hemorrhage for inflicted trauma. There is scant objective evidence to resolve these questions, and more information is needed. The objective of this study was to determine whether there are witnessed or investigated fatal short-distance falls that were concluded to be accidental. The author reviewed the January 1, 1988 through June 30, 1999 United States Consumer Product Safety Commission database for head injury associated with the use of playground equipment. The author obtained and reviewed the primary source data (hospital and emergency medical services’ records, law enforcement reports, and coroner or medical examiner records) for all fatalities involving a fall.

The results revealed 18 fall-related head injury fatalities in the database. The youngest child was 12 months old, the oldest 13 years. The falls were from 0.6 to 3 meters (2–10 feet). A noncaretaker witnessed 12 of the 18, and 12 had a lucid interval. Four of the six children in whom funduscopic examination was documented in the medical record had bilateral retinal hemorrhage. The author concludes that an infant or child may suffer a fatal head injury from a fall of less than 3 meters (10 feet). The injury may be associated with a lucid interval and bilateral retinal hemorrhage.

From the Departments of Pathology and Medical Education, Regina Medical Center, 1175 Nininger Road, Hastings MN 55033, U.S.A.; Email:

Manuscript received April 10, 2000;

revised September 15, 2000; accepted September 24, 2000.

© 2001 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.