Inflatable attractions may seem less ominous than roller coasters that flip riders upside down or carnival rides that send thrill-seekers whirling through the open air. But they can be just as dangerous and are far less regulated.
By Jen Fifield
It was a brisk fall day in Nashua, New Hampshire — tailor-made for apple-picking and scarecrow-making at the Halloween festival at Sullivan Farm.
When a hayride dropped Danielle Rogers and her family near a colorful bounce house, her 3-year-old son, Joseph, and the 2-year-old son of a family friend climbed inside. Then came a gust of wind and, as Rogers screamed, the inflatable house lifted off the ground. She grabbed the rope attached to the corner, but the wind yanked it from her hands. The bounce house, and the boys, went sailing high into the October sky, like a giant balloon — severely injuring the two boys.
Inflatable attractions like bounce houses, obstacle courses and slides, which have increased in popularity in recent decades, may seem less ominous than roller coasters that flip riders upside down or carnival rides that send thrill-seekers whirling through the open air. But they can be just as dangerous and they are far less regulated.
The estimated number of injuries on the attractions soared from 5,311 in 2003 to 17,377 in 2013, according to a Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) report analyzing U.S. hospital records. A Stateline analysis found that the trend continues, with an estimated 20,700 injuries last year.
Only half of states — including New Hampshire — have regulations governing permits, inspections and insurance. But even where rules are in place, a Stateline investigation found major shortcomings.
In several states that require all inflatables to be permitted, dozens of companies advertise inflatable rentals online, but do not have permits on file with the state. That means the state has no way of knowing if they have been properly inspected or are insured.
Few states scout for events where inflatables will be set up, or search online for company listings. When they find illegal operators, states rarely issue fines or fees. And in a few states, the regulating agencies don’t have the authority to punish operators, even if they wanted to.
In addition, state laws about amusement rides are often unclear, leaving operators unsure about whether inflatables are regulated and what the penalties are for those who don’t follow the rules.
In many of the states that regulate inflatables, officials say that they try the best they can. But some admit it’s hard to manage.
“It’s difficult sometimes because [operators] come and go quickly,” said Denise Oxley, general counsel of the Department of Labor in Arkansas. “Unless they set up at a local fair or event, or they open a little play place for kids, it’s hard to catch.”
Even if the laws were better enforced, though, it wouldn’t solve the safety issues that plague the industry, according to interviews with state officials, inspectors, insurance agents and operators.
Most injuries occur, they say, because operators are careless during setup, children aren’t supervised, and guidelines for safe play aren’t followed. But state laws focus on insurance and annual inspections — not on training for operators or rules on supervision.
‘Like a Lawn Dart’
In New Hampshire, a state investigation found that the Nashua bounce house wasn’t staked down when the boys climbed in it that day in 2014. What happened next, when the wind came up, is detailed in a legal complaint filed by one of the boys’ parents. The house sailed over a fence, higher than a nearby barn. It was about 50 feet in the air when, with the boys still inside, it flipped over and shot to the ground “like a lawn dart,” the complaint said.
Gary Bergeron, the owner of Rickety Ranch, an animal sanctuary on Sullivan Farm, had bought the bounce house just days before from a man living down the road, according to Nashua Police Department records. It cost him $1,500 and was at least 12 years old.
Bergeron, at the time a licensed amusement ride inspector for the state, told police he inspected the bounce house and found several problems, including missing stakes. So he said he moved it to a fenced-off part of the farm, and put two haystacks in front of it to block it off. He blew it up to let it dry, he said, not because he intended it to be used.
But witnesses, including farm visitors and volunteers, later told police that the bounce house wasn’t behind a fence, and wasn’t blocked off. And, police found, the bounce house had been advertised as a feature of the event: An ad on a local website invited the whole family to “jump in the jumpy house.”
Bergeron, who organized the festival as a fundraiser for Rickety Ranch, declined to comment. He denies any fault or wrongdoing, according to civil court records. He was also criminally charged in June 2015 with failing to register the inflatable and not having it properly inspected. Bergeron pleaded no contest.
Like New Hampshire, about half the states that regulate inflatables require them to be registered and inspected before being used at a public event. Other states regulate inflatables no matter where they are set up, including when they are rented out to private birthday parties and company events.
No matter the laws, some business owners find ways around them. They cross state lines for a weekend fair without getting a permit, or change their business name or phone number to avoid detection, according to state officials.
In states that attempt to regulate all inflatables, it can be hard for regulators to keep up. An online search in some of those states found dozens of operators without permits: 24 in Arkansas, 30 in New Mexico, 36 in Tennessee, and 90 in Texas.
In states that attempt to regulate all inflatables, it can be hard for regulators to keep up.
In New Hampshire, Briggs Lockwood, chief of tramway and amusement ride safety, says there are likely to be businesses the state doesn’t know about, but he “would have no idea really how big the problem is.”
In fact, to assess the problem, many states have relied on help from competitors — inflatable operators dropping a dime on those operating without permits.
This can lead to a cat-and-mouse game. Operators wait until the state inspector leaves before setting up, then another operator calls the inspector and tells him to come back, said Rob Gavel, the program manager for Maryland’s safety inspection unit.
Tennessee has a reporting system on its website that allows people to report a company operating an amusement ride without a permit. The site also lists at least 18 inflatable companies that are currently advertising their services online but do not have permits. Stateline found 22 more.
Mangled Mound of Vinyl
In Nashua, Rogers and the other parents rushed to recover their children from the mangled mound of vinyl on the ground.
Rogers’ son, Joseph Suomala, had several broken bones. Aayden Vogel, the younger boy, was far worse off. He was unconscious and not breathing with signs of a traumatic brain injury, according to the complaint.
Joseph went to a local hospital by ambulance, Aayden to a trauma center by helicopter.
Both boys survived but since 2000, at least four people died in U.S. accidents related to inflatables, according to Patty Davis, a CPSC spokeswoman. In the same time period, at least 18 people have died on other types of amusement rides and attractions.
“Participatory” attractions — such as inflatables, go-karts and trampoline parks, in which people have greater control over their own movement — have significantly higher injury rates than other amusement attractions, said Kathy Fackler, president of the nonprofit Saferparks, which tracks amusement ride injuries and advocates for tougher safety standards.
“Some of that you can mitigate as a parent or participant,” Fackler said. “But maybe not all of it.”
The number of injuries on inflatables started to soar after 2008, according to the CPSC and an analysis of its data by the Child Injury Prevention Alliance.
The trend can be explained in part by the 2008-09 recession, said Larry Cossio, who owns a national insurance agency that specializes in inflatables. As people lost their jobs, they looked for an easy way to make money, he said. Inflatables can be purchased online for as little as $1,000.
All those people entering the industry without training or experience made injuries much more likely, Cossio said.
Flyaway accidents like the one in New Hampshire remain rare. But they often receive a lot of attention and give the industry a black eye, said Kevin Baldree, owner of Austin Moonwalks, a permitted inflatables business in Texas.
Other types of accidents are much more common, such as when children play rough and injure themselves or fall off the devices onto a hard surface, according to a Stateline review of injuries reported to states and of the CPSC’s injury database. The most common injuries include sprained ankles, broken arms and legs, concussions and strained or sprained necks.
Hoping to prevent some of these injuries, a group of manufacturers, operators and regulators are updating industry guidelines to be much more specific and reinforcing the importance of proper setup, supervision and training, Fackler said. The guidelines will be finalized by ASTM International, which sets standards for thousands of devices.
Supervision can do a lot to prevent these injuries, Baldree said, but parents often don’t watch their children.
“They call that the ‘inflatable babysitter syndrome,’ ” he said. “The mom orders a bounce house and calls her friends, and then they go drink margaritas and not watch the kids all day.”
Cost of Doing Business
Many inflatable operators, such as Steve Rothenberg, owner of an amusement company in Maryland called Talk of the Town, say they support reasonable state regulations. Without them, “it would be a free-for-all,” Rothenberg said.
But operators and insurance agents say the laws as they are currently enforced don’t keep children from being injured.
Instead, operators say, they create an uneven playing field by increasing costs for operators who follow the rules. States often charge permit or inspection fees, ranging from $10 to $280 a year. And insurance can cost another $1,500 or more a year for each attraction, Cossio said.
State officials say small businesses sometimes choose to shut down once they find out about those costs. For larger businesses, which are more likely to follow the rules, the costs add up.
Ohio charges $255 each year for a permit and inspection. UltraSound Special Events, an entertainment company in the state, has about 40 inflatables, and pays about $11,000 just to stay in compliance, said Kevin Weiging, the company’s owner.
These costs ultimately fall to the customer, who may choose another company to save a few dollars, Weiging said, “so you’re not only paying the fees, you’re also losing the business.”
Instead, operators say states should focus on training. In Pennsylvania, operators can inspect their own attractions after they pass a test and get a permit. Many of them choose to do so — the state has about 1,300 certified inspectors. After that, they need 16 hours of continuing education every three years.
The state audits the inspections every once in a while, and doesn’t see many problems, said Walt Remmert, director of the state’s bureau of ride and measurement standards.
“If that’s their business, that’s their livelihood,” he said. “They have every reason to comply.”
No Authority to Punish
In 2015, Bergeron was found guilty of not registering the bounce house and not having it properly inspected. New Hampshire fined him $2,480, with half of the payment suspended for a year of good behavior.
Few states issue fines or fees to illegal operators, or take them to court.
When state officials find businesses operating inflatables without permits, they are likely to shut them down on the spot if they don’t comply, or issue a sternly worded violation letter. If officials find they continue to operate, they issue additional verbal or written warnings. But punishment often stops there.
New Jersey is among the strictest. State officials often issue fines when they find operators without permits or insurance, said Mike Baier, acting chief of the state’s bureau of code services. The fines can be up to $5,000. State officials have even gone as far as wage garnishment, Baier said.
New Mexico amusement officials want more enforcement power, said Alex Sanchez, deputy superintendent of the state’s regulation and licensing department. The department advocated for a bill this year that would have made it clearer that inflatables are regulated in the state, and would have allowed the department to take legal action against operators. The bill didn’t pass; Sanchez said there was disagreement about whether to include rock climbing walls and centers.
In Texas, the Department of Insurance, which regulates inflatables, doesn’t have the authority to fine operators or take them to court, said Jerry Hagins, a department spokesman.
Baldree helped start the Texas Inflatable Operators Association in 2012 to push for stricter rules and strengthen state officials’ enforcement authority. Hagins said the state has increased its enforcement efforts since then. The state issued 960 noncompliance letters to amusement ride companies last fiscal year, up from 774 in fiscal 2014, according to a state report.
But Baldree said he still sees illegal operators “on a day-to-day basis.”
Aayden had to stay in the hospital for a month, relearning how to walk and talk, according to his parents’ court complaint. His severe brain injury left him with physical and mental disabilities, the complaint also said, and his eyesight is likely to be permanently damaged.
Aayden’s parents, Kattrina Morales and Robert Vogel, along with Rogers and Joseph’s father, Bryan Suomala, are suing the farm and the sanctuary, as well as Bergeron, his wife and stepson, and Katherine Williams, an owner of the farm. The boys’ parents, along with their lawyers, declined to comment.
In the lawsuit, Aayden’s parents contend that Bergeron and the other parties were negligent in allowing an unsupervised, unsecured, defective, un-staked bounce house to be played in, and that their negligence resulted in Aayden’s injuries, as well as his “loss of enjoyment of life, and tremendous and ongoing medical and occupational costs.”
Bergeron, his family and the ranch deny these charges, and Williams and Sullivan Farm deny all involvement with the accident.
A jury trial is scheduled for January.