SAN ANTONIO – On the first day of summer vacation in 2013, 16-year-old Max Menchaca and his friends decided to spend part of their day at a Houston-area indoor trampoline park.
When the day was over, Max was in a local hospital being treated for a traumatic brain injury that could have killed him.
“I got a phone call from my husband. He had gotten a phone call from one of the boys and so my daughter and I jumped in the car, rushed down to the medical center,” Trace Menchaca, Max’s mom recalled. “I remember when we were walking into the emergency room I told my daughter, I said, ‘If they take us to see your brother, then, you know, at least we know he’s alive right now. I’m just preparing you if they take us to a little consultation room with a sofa and, you know, a chaplain or something like that, you need to prepare yourself that your brother has died.’ So that is just a conversation I feel like no one should ever have to have with a teenage child.”
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Max had fallen through a large hole in one of the trampolines at the park. Surveillance video of the incident showed Max and one of his friends racing to the top of an incline, then sliding down the other side. Max disappeared through the torn canvass, hitting is head on the hard concrete floor below.
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“That’s where he shattered his skull and then had, as a result, three different hemorrhages in his brain,” Trace Menchaca said. “He was in the hospital briefly. Just a few days. But the thing I remember the most was when we took him home. It was like he became childlike again. It was like when he fell in the hole, he was a 16-year-old boy. When he came out it was like he was like a little Max.”
Max’s injury was just one of thousands of serious injuries that have happened at indoor trampoline parks. As the industry has exploded in popularity in recent years so have visits to emergency rooms for everything from broken legs to broken necks.
A 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found between 2011 and 2014 “the number of emergency department visits from injuries sustained at trampoline parks rose more than 10-fold from 600 to almost 7,000.”
The same study reported that 85 percent of trampoline related injuries still happen at home but “trampoline park injuries have a 1.7 times higher likelihood of requiring admission to the hospital.”
According to the AAP, trampoline injuries result in nearly 100,000 trips to the emergency room every year. The academy strongly recommends against recreational trampoline use by children and believe it should be discouraged by doctors.
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This summer, the KSAT Defenders requested San Antonio Fire Department responses to five local trampoline parks from January 2017 through the end of July 2019.
According to the records provided, there were 67 calls with most classified as trauma responses with some for falls, chest pains and fainting.
The park that racked up the most calls in the time period that was looked at came from Thin Air on Fredericksburg Road which had 22 fire responses.
The park has since gone out of business.
“You’ve got to know that you’re at an extremely high injury risk when you go to these places,” said attorney Tom Crosley. “It is a very high risk of injury and usually if there is an injury, it’s the kind of life-changing injury.”
Crosley has become an expert on trampoline park-related injuries. He took on Max’s case and proved at trial the owners of the park knew one of their trampolines was damaged but did little to protect their guests.
“What we were able to prove in the trial is that they knew about this problem because it happened the day before as they were closing the park. But instead of fixing it, they opened the park the next morning because this is going to be a big money day for them,” Crosley said.
Surveillance video from inside the park showed employees had placed a couple of stanchions on the canvass near the tear but only on one side. Max likely never saw the hole until he slid down the other side of the incline and fell through it.
“It would seem common sense that they didn’t do the minimum safety things that they should have done. But instead, they blamed Max because they said he should have known,” Crosley said. “Every trampoline park has security video, usually multiple angles in multiple rooms. So when there are injuries they are caught on tape and we were able to get that tape. We had so much video that we were able to show that for four hours there were lots of other close calls before Max was injured. And so it was, in our view, a case of gross negligence.”
Crosley convinced the jury and they awarded Max $11.5 million dollars in medical expenses and damages.
Crosley and the Menchaca family had hoped the large verdict would force the trampoline park industry to take notice and step up efforts to increase safety.
However, six years later, trampoline parks remain unregulated in the state of Texas and in many other states.
“In Texas, like most states, we regulate amusement parks. We regulate amusement rides. We require safety inspections. We require a certain minimum amount of insurance, all sorts of things that are designed to keep consumers and end users of those devices to keep them safe. We even regulate bounce houses, you know, the kind that might be at your child’s birthday party where there’s air pressure flowing in. We regulate those, but we don’t have any regulation in effect for trampoline parks,” Crosley said. “There’s a need to establish some baseline of regulation for safety purposes. There ought to be certain inspections that are required. There ought to be minimum safety protocols. There ought to be minimum insurance limits that are required.”
The trampoline park industry sees things differently. In a statement from the International Association of Trampoline parks, Executive VP Bethany Evans said, “Patron safety is a top priority for the IATP. We take every opportunity to communicate and recommend to our members that all optimal steps be taken to mitigate risks.”
Evans said the IATP “advocates that trampoline parks abide by ASTM International F2970-17, the Standard Practice for Design, Manufacture, Installation, Operation, Maintenance, Inspection and Major Modifications of Trampoline Courts.”
In addition, the IATP recently announced that by 2021, all of its member parks “will be required to pass a third-party inspection to continue with IATP membership.” But critics point out there is no requirement for trampoline park owners to belong to the IATP or to follow its guidelines.
That leaves consumers to trust that operators are regularly inspecting equipment, making repairs and hiring competent employees.
“The absence of regulation means that pretty much anything goes. Because it’s the Wild West, and there’s no governmental agency that’s setting rules and requiring them to follow, you have a few responsible trampoline parks on one end of the spectrum and you have some irresponsible ones on the other end of the spectrum, " Crosley said. “What’s really needed is either a combination of awareness of the dangers by the people going so that they are informed and make an informed choice still to take that risk along with some governmental oversight just to make sure that there are minimum safety regulations that are enforced, minimum insurance requirements that exist, certain periodic inspections and that certain engineering standards for safety are in place.”
Most parks require patrons to sign liability waivers acknowledging the dangers before being allowed to jump. Even though Crosley’s client Max Menchaca had signed one of those agreements, Crosley argued it wasn’t enforceable because Max was a minor.
“So if you’re 18 or older, you have the legal capacity to waive or release any future claim you may have. But you don’t have the ability to do that for a child. So even a parent can’t waive a child’s injury claim,” Crosley said. “Most of these injuries are tibia and fibula fractures, lower leg injuries of the type that is normally associated with trampoline use. So if it’s somebody older than 18, most of the time, lawyers aren’t going to take that case unless there’s something really unusual about the injury. If it’s a minor, however, people need to know that just because they signed this piece of paper that says they’re giving away any right, they have to seek legal recourse. That’s going to be held unenforceable in Texas.”
Despite living with the lingering effects of his injury, Trace Menchaca says her son Max is now attending college and is on track to graduate next year. Meanwhile she continues to fight for trampoline parks to be regulated in Texas. Menchaca has worked with state lawmakers to get a bill passed but so far hasn't been successful.
“What people don’t understand and what’s so scary is that any carnival in any supermarket parking lot anywhere in the country with those little rickety Ferris wheels that you would never let your kid on is regulated. But the trampoline park that you’re going to on the weekends is not,” Menchaca said. " We’re not trying to take the fun out of it. We’re trying to just make it safe. I really think it’s going to take a major tragedy, an entire collapse of equipment with an entire birthday party before somebody goes, ‘Wait a minute. What just happened?’"
Here are some tips from International Association of Trampoline Parks before jumping:
1. Never jump without a court monitor supervising the attraction.
2. Be certain to read all rules and regulations posted throughout the park.
3. Make sure to watch a safety video or have a safety briefing from staff.
4. Always be aware of your surroundings, and never jump around or near other jumpers.
5. If the park has a foam pit make sure the foam is at or above the level of the trampoline.
6. Look for the IATP membership sticker on the door.