As the father of two young children, I’ve been to many places that had bounce houses, from outfits like Pump It Up to back yards with a rented inflatable. As such, this story about the way such things are regulated was fascinating to me.
The Texas Department of Insurance is legally responsible for keeping an eye on what in the industry are known as continuous airflow inflatables — and by millions of birthday party guests as bouncy houses and jumpolines.
Yet legislators didn’t give the agency much enforcement authority. So its oversight can seem underwhelming. The typical penalty for operators who consistently refuse to comply with state rules requiring that they carry liability insurance and get each of their units inspected once a year is a series of strongly worded letters under department letterhead. For especially egregious cases, the law says the attorney general’s office can issue an injunction, though it never has.
Occasionally, the Insurance Department directs complaints to local police, who, according to the law, can cite scofflaws for violations. Word has not spread widely, however.
“I’ve never heard of that,” said Detective John Foster, a Williamson County sheriff’s spokesman. “Never.”
Without an enforcement provision, the state law is essentially an honor system supported by snitches. The Insurance Department has no field inspectors, so the typical way it learns that a company is in business is when it registers with the department.
“If a new operator came into the state and started up (without registering), we wouldn’t know,” [TDI spokesman Jerry] Hagins said. Notices of violators “usually come from whistle-blowers” — furious compliant operators.
Because the department has no authority to levy or collect fines, its response is limited to registered letters. It has sent about 600 in the past two years. If the offending company still doesn’t comply, the department fires off another, more strongly worded letter.
The missives have spurred resolution of 136 cases, with the companies agreeing to follow the rules or notifying the agency that they are closing up shop. Yet because the agency has no formal follow-up, it’s unclear how successful the enforcement effort has been.
“We’ve had some companies just change their names,” Hagins said. “So we start over again. It’s a moving target.” Meanwhile, the agency lists 480 cases as still unresolved.
For operators who don’t respond to the first strongly worded letter, Hagins said the Insurance Department copies local police on subsequent warnings.
“We don’t hear back from the police very often,” he said.
Sending a letter that says “Stop, or I’ll send you another letter telling you to stop” doesn’t seem like a particularly vigorous enforcement mechanism, but I doubt there will be anything else unless and until someone gets seriously hurt or worse. Until such time, it’s probably not a bad idea to ask the business owner if they’re registered with the Insurance Department, and keeping your own eye on things.