Accidents taking bounce out of fledgling trampoline parks
In one corner is a personal injury attorney in Seattle making lots of noise. Sim Osborn of Osborn Machler has filed “22 or 23” lawsuits, almost all so far against Sky High Sports’ trampoline park in Bellevue, Washington, and with more to come.
“We have cases out of Tennessee, Chicago, just all over the nation. These things are so horribly dangerous,” Osborn said about trampoline parks, those indoor entertainment centers where jumpers bounce wall-to-wall. “Five or six” cases have settled so far—they’re coming so fast it’s hard to keep track—and three are scheduled for trial.
“It’s always nice to go to trial on a case where you have a really good chance of winning,” Osborn said.
“When you have a 200-pound man jump on a four-year-old girl and crushes her hip, that’s a pretty good case.”
In the other corner is—silence. Phone calls and e-mails to Jerry Raymond, co-founder of Sky High Sports; to company spokespeople via blind contact submission forms; to the Concord, California, location the Bellevue shop said was the headquarters; to the e-mail address the Concord shop said would be read by Raymond’s office in Nevada—all were referred on or unreturned.
After two weeks of calling him, Peter Steilberg picked up the phone. He’s the personal injury defense attorney representing Sky High Sports, with the prominent Seattle law firm Merrick, Hofstedt & Lindsey. He couldn’t comment on the lawsuits without talking to his client first, he said. He would do so. He never answered my calls again.
The spectacle is nauseating for operators in the young industry, who know the horrible accidents described in the lawsuits are a public relations nightmare, not to mention a tragedy for those who suffer them. A Phoenix man broke his neck and died jumping into a foam pit at a trampoline park. A Washington teen was learning how to walk again after a spinal cord injury.
Worse, operators are springing up all the time, often fun-loving types drawn to the sports entertainment business but many ill-equipped to properly handle a risky business or crisis communications. Some throw out a bunch of poorly trained teenagers to supervise the jumping. Others don’t know what to say or hide out altogether when a reporter calls about a lawsuit.
This industry is in serious growing pains.
Pushing for regulations
Jeff Platt is CEO of SkyZone Sports, a Los Angeles company that just began franchising last year but has already emerged as an industry leader. He and his father are credited by most for the first modern trampoline park, opened in 2004. (Steilberg, however, disputed that such parks are new, possibly because his client, Raymond at Sky High, has also been sued by SkyZone in an ongoing patent infringement case. But that’s another story).
“A lot of people see a trampoline park, they recognize that it has a potential successful business model. They think it’s easy, and that they can throw up a bunch of trampolines and just do it,” Platt said. “It requires a level of attention to things like risk management. People can get injured.”
He’s concerned that the recent rash of lawsuits threatens the industry. “We do recognize that what’s going on in Seattle could become, I hate to say the norm, but it could have a ripple effect. It already has started to have a ripple effect,” Platt said.
“You’re going to have other attorneys who are going to recognize that there could be an opportunity for them to adopt the same philosophy as the attorney in Washington has, and seek out parks that are not conforming to generally accepted best practices relative to risk management.”
Platt is worried enough that he’s joined with others in the industry and ASTM International, which develops safety and technical standards for products and services, to do something business owners normally reject: create the first set of safety regulations for trampoline parks.
Platt calls it “unprecedented” for owners to push for regulations, and crucial, “because we will stand and fall as an industry,” he said. “Our goal is to raise the bar to a level it needs to be and beyond, and then in turn share those best practices with the industry.” He said the group’s work over the past 10 months has produced draft regulations.
Platt said he emphasizes training at his company, and calls the people who monitor their courts “lifeguards.” He insists on preventative maintenance. But he never calls jumping “safe.” “We’re very careful to not use the word safety, because as with any physical activity, the potential for injury is there.”
Platt declined to comment on Sky High’s operation, and when asked if his firm had been the target of personal injury lawsuits, he said he doesn’t comment on specific legal issues at his own company. “I will tell you that the reason that you haven’t seen us in the news—I think there’s a reason.” Then he described the long list of training and safety practices at SkyZone.
It’s likely only a matter of time before those practices are tested. In August, Osborn said he was about to file a personal injury lawsuit against what he called a SkyZone trampoline park in Kirkland, Washington. The owner, Nancy Burritt, declined to comment when reached by phone and said she was not affiliated with SkyZone anymore; her website said the new name was SkyMania Trampolines. Platt confirmed she was a franchisee but they had “separated” last December.
On a mission or milking it?
Meanwhile in Seattle, Sim Osborn is promoting his push for trampoline park safety. “It’s really sad,” he said about the cases he’s seeing. He got involved about a year ago, when a friend he had played football and baseball with in his youth—“a couple of truck drivers’ kids, you know”—called him.
“He called me and said, ‘You cannot believe this place.’ His son was hurt real bad, and his leg was broke in six places. He said, ‘I went down there, and it’s a zoo. They didn’t even call me or call 911’ when his son was hurt. ‘They had a couple of 16-year-old kids there working as court monitors.’
“He said, ‘It’s unbelievable. Can you help me?’ He had about $50,000 in medical bills.”
Then a reporter called about accidents at the same Sky High location in Bellevue, Osborn said, and the string of lawsuits began.
Osborn describes another case in colorful terms: “There’s a guy on a trampoline and he jumps up and jumps again, and he hits a hole in the trampoline and his foot goes through to the concrete floor below and breaks. Then when he rebounds and comes down again, he rips the meat out of his crotch.”
Osborn is adamant: “You should not let your kids go there. I coach high school football, too, and my players wanted to go. I said, Coach says no.”
Now Osborn is looking beyond Seattle, and with many interviews about the topic his fame is spreading.
He said a case was referred to him from Chicago; another came from Tennessee. “The cases will continue to come in from everywhere,” Osborn said.
His firm’s website is fanning the flames, with prominent buttons that say “trampoline park danger,” “media resources,” and “have you been injured?” It lists other cases around the country, with grisly headlines.
He does seem like a man on a mission, but at some point one could also say he appears to be milking it.
Osborn’s brand of full-throated advocacy and vivid language stands in sharp contrast to the silence on the other side. After some searching, I found a Sky High Sports letter on a Seattle TV station’s website, dated March 7, 2010, addressed to “Amy” and signed by Jerry Raymond, company co-founder.
“At Sky High we take our customers’ safety very seriously,” the letter said, listing the safety features at the park. “We also have court monitors on every court to ensure everyone is following the safety rules.”
It said their injury rate seven months after opening was at 0.03 percent, “well below the national average for all sports,” and cited injury statistics from other physical activities.
The letter closed with a personal note. “As a parent myself, I like nothing more than watching my kids play on our trampolines, expending energy instead of sitting at home watching television. With the obesity problem facing this nation’s children and adults, my brother and I are proud to offer a fun, healthy sporting activity for everyone in the family.”
Such a response seems far too weak to face down this growing threat.
Beth Ewen, managing editor of Franchise Times, writes the Continental Franchise Review column each issue. Send tips about interesting legal cases involving franchises to firstname.lastname@example.org