‘Inflatables’ insurance keeps safety from bouncing away

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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.

Jeff McCarthy, manager of Harrington Insurance Agency in Cambridge, Mass., even flirted with buying a bounce house with his siblings to rent out to their large family.

“My brother saw two or three online for like $1,200 and he said we can pay it off in three or four rentals and then we own it,” he says. “I probably would have gone for it until my insurance mind kicked in.”

McCarthy realized a commercial insurance policy would not only be essential, but that it would also bust his budget. Unfortunately, he says, other operators choose to do without coverage.

“Most people don’t have insurance,” he says. “It’s the firefighter who bought one of these on eBay and rents it out for cookouts, and I bet my life they don’t have insurance.”

If someone gets hurt on one you’ve rented, don’t look for help from your homeowners insurance, he says. “Homeowners (insurance) obviously isn’t going to cover it if a bounce company came out, set it up and it blew away with five kids on it,” he says.

Wagner recommends these steps for worry-free inflatable fun:

  • Make sure your operator has a valid certificate of operation if your state regulates inflatables. You can find this by searching online for “amusement devices” on your city, county or state government site. Amusement ride inspection typically falls under the Department of Labor, Department of Agriculture or Department of Public Safety.
  • Make sure the rental company is insured, even where it’s not required by statute. Be sure the policy specifically covers inflatable amusement rides and that the limits are adequate.
  • Investigate the rental company’s safety record. States with jurisdiction maintain extensive records on training and accidents by certified operators.
  • Follow manufacturer safety guidelines. Do not allow adults on rides with children, as the weight difference frequently results in injuries.