insurance

'Inflatables' insurance keeps safety from bouncing away

Inflatable playset
Highlights
  • At least 10 inflatables have collapsed or have been tossed skyward in recent months.
  • "There are no dangerous rides. Dangerous operations, dangerous installers, yes."
  • Homeowner's insurance won't cover an inflatable if a company came out and set it up.

Parents well know the birthday-party appeal of inflatable trampolines, slides and bounce houses.

But it's no picnic to learn your homeowners insurance won't be much help should someone get hurt on an inflatable dragon slide in your front yard that's been improperly installed or rented from a company that lacks valid commercial liability insurance.

In recent months, at least 10 inflatables have suddenly collapsed or been tossed skyward by high winds with kids onboard, according to the consumer site RideAccidents.com. In Arizona, two children were blown across three lanes of traffic. On New York's Long Island, winds launched a trio of inflatables, sending 13 people to the hospital. Deaths, though infrequent, have occurred.

Don't blame the inflatables, says Clyde Wagner, an equipment safety inspector for 40 years and president of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, or NAARSO.

"There are no dangerous rides," he says. "Dangerous operators, dangerous installers, yes -- but the ride itself is not dangerous."

Wagner says inflatables are engineered and manufactured "with safety as paramount." Each comes with a safety handbook that includes tether, anchor and installation guidelines; weight limits; and safe operating protocols, including weather conditions to avoid.

Unfortunately, public oversight of the inflatable rental industry is spotty. "Not all states will inspect inflatables," says Wagner. "There are probably eight to 10 that still have no state program."

In states that have jurisdiction, inflatables are inspected along with roller coasters and other public amusement rides. Many counties and municipalities have enacted their own safety inspection programs.

"If there is jurisdiction, there is always some kind of certificate of operation that is affixed to the inflatable or blower motor," Wagner says.

Trouble pops up where oversight is lax.

"Where there is no jurisdiction, there could very well be no insurance requirement," Wagner says. "Insurance is a real issue with inflatables. There are bogus insurance companies everywhere that write bogus policies. In states with jurisdiction, they always cross-check their policies against the approved insurers in the state before they issue a certificate."

Five years ago, John Clark, specialty lines manager for Thomco Insurance of Kennesaw, Ga., introduced an insurance policy called Fun Pro to inflatable operators across the country, one of many such surplus lines products. Fun Pro's average annual premiums run $2,500 to $3,000 for $1 million liability, $2 million aggregate coverage for a small operator with four or five bounce houses, slides or rock walls.

"You see the types of injuries you would expect: abrasions, sprained wrists, broken arms, twisted ankles," Clark says. "It's playground-type exposure. We haven't had any deaths."

What he has seen is growth.

"When the recession happened in 2008, we thought maybe we would see shrinkage, but we haven't. In fact, the people who rent these have grown. I guess people who have lost their jobs go out and buy one of these and go into business. It is a little cheaper doing this than going to a Chuck E. Cheese's," he says.

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