HIGH BOUNCE, HIGH RISK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mention trampolines to orthopedic surgeon Hugh W. Baugher and he thinks fractured forearms, sprained ankles, broken necks, pure lunacy.

"I've got neighbors who are intelligent people up the hill," he says impatiently. "They have MBAs from Stanford. I told them they were crazy [to own a trampoline].

"They finally folded it up when all three of their children were in casts."

In Dr. Baugher's Ruxton neighborhood -- and in back yards across the country -- trampolines are sprouting like mushrooms after a summer rain.

The round, rectangular and octagonal polypropylene beds are a powerful magnet for youngsters -- and a reprieve for parents weary of the summer mantra, "There's nothing to do."

This year about a half-million consumers will buy "tension surface rebound devices."

They'll discover that every bounce fuels the next, higher bounce. And that trampolines invite experimentation, derring-do and the neighborhood gang for a little midnight moshing.

And they may discover the hard way that things can soar quickly out of control.

Only two of Dr. Baugher's neighbors were injured on their tramp; the third broke a thumb playing basketball.

But for four years, "Baugher kept telling us, 'Look out, look out, somebody's going to get hurt,' " says John Sasser, owner of the MBA from Stanford and former owner of said trampoline.

"All of a sudden, two of them hurt themselves in one week."

It happened two years ago, around Easter. Mr. Sasser's daughter, Hunter, now 14, jammed an elbow while doing a seat drop and received minor nerve damage.

Then son Flip sprained an ankle while he and big brother Jack played a game that required each of them to jump high and knock the other one down by stealing his bounce.

When Nancy Sasser arrived at Children's Hospital for the second time in a week with the hobbling Flip, Dr. Baugher produced a medical text with a chapter on trampoline injuries and ordered her to read it.

Otherwise, he threatened in jest, he would report her to social services.

Not long after that, John Sasser dismantled the trampoline while the kids were out.

But Flip continues to jump on it -- it was bequeathed to a neighbor. Should that one disappear, there's a backup just down the hill.

Until recently, the trampoline was an unfamiliar sight on the domestic front. The apparatus was more commonly viewed as a circus staple or training tool in gymnastics, diving and aerial skiing.

But the new generation of tramps -- cheaper and more portable -- are widely available at wholesale clubs, hardware and pool stores.

A family can pick one up at the gas station en route to the beach in Florida, part of the "Trampoline Belt" that extends through the Southern states to Texas, and where the climate makes trampolining a year-round sport.

A recent episode of "The Simpsons" is proof that, for better or worse, trampolines have wedged themselves into the suburban landscape.

When Homer Simpson erects a cast-off trampoline in his back yard, he is besieged by youthful customers who are soon moaning in pain from their injuries.

But Homer can't trash the tramp no matter how hard he tries. It just keeps bouncing back.

That, in fact, has been the history of the tramp. It rebounds and mutates with intriguing ingenuity.

Devotees of today's backyard tramp may not realize that Americans created the sport of trampolining and once dominated international competition -- that was, until lawyers and insurance companies came along.

The thrill of flying

Now the new breed of tramp is under suspicion. In the scrutinizing mind of a commercial insurance underwriter, trampolines rank with such products as spider venom used in neurological research and medical implants.

All are risky, risky, risky.

In an exquisitely pure and joyful way, the trampoline translates the physics of bouncing. Give it your weight, and the trampoline gives it back, launching you skyward.

"It feels like you are flying!" says 8-year-old Carl Cunningham, who shares his Roland Park trampoline with two big sisters, their friends and a dog.

You defy gravity until the apex of the bounce, and then, you are essentially in an accelerating free fall until hitting the bed again.

The thrill lies in the fall, which produces an internal rush that bypasses the usual circuitry.

It's pure sensation.

Landing is the payback for such rapture. But the beauty of riding Newton's law in a rollout flip can disintegrate point blank into a biomechanical nightmare.

It might be a sprained ankle, or it might be quadriplegia.

Get a little crazy -- leap from tramp to pool, from roof to tramp, use it to vault a car, practice your snowboard moves -- and the potential for injury swells accordingly.

But getting a little crazy is precisely the point.

If the Cunningham kids played by the written rules, they wouldn't be able to do their favorite thing: Spritz the trampoline with water from the hose and slip, slide and bounce all over the place.

Clare Cunningham, 13, and her friend Maria Mainolfi couldn't jump together because their collective weight exceeds 215 pounds, the manufacturer's limit. For that matter, only one kid would be able to jump at a time.

The family dog would be excluded from the tramp.

And Lisa Cunningham would have to spot at the trampoline's side, rather than watch her kids from the kitchen window.

Anticipating what can happen on or near a trampoline, with its infinite potential for disaster, isn't easy.

Vikki and Barry Hedden, an Owings Mills couple with two daughters, bought their trampoline for $75 from the Montgomery County school system.

Ms. Hedden required the neighbors' kids to play on the trampoline with adult supervision. Her daughters were allowed to jump as long as she was watching from the house.

Despite care, freak accident

Nevertheless, a freak injury occurred when Ms. Hedden's younger daughter was lying beneath the trampoline with her legs extended to the bed. Another youngster landed full force on the trampoline, compressing her daughter's femur.

"She was in a full-length cast for two months," Ms. Hedden says.

The Montgomery County school system, like others around the country, had tossed its tramp because of the fear of liability. By the late 1970s, a rash of spinal cord injuries had led to huge verdicts against schools and recreation centers.

Manufacturers of trampolines -- including the world's first, founded in 1936 by a champion gymnast and circus acrobat -- were forced out of business.

The current crop of trampoline manufacturers have learned from bankrupt predecessors to cover themselves legally with product warnings, legal disclaimers and safety tips, such as allowing only one jumper at a time.

Not that the warnings are heeded.

A 1992 study of trampoline injuries in Salt Lake City found that 77 percent occurred when three or more children were on the trampoline.

"It's not fun with only one person on at a time," says Hunter Sasser, whose devotion to horses has kept her away from the tramp since her injury.

If you obeyed the manufacturers' rules, you couldn't play the games the Sassers devised on the trampoline. Like the one that required a circle of friends to jump in unison, catapulting the lucky middle man.

As for the yellow label on the trampoline bed that cautions against such antics, it served as "base" when the Sasser kids played tag on their tramp.

"Nobody would read it," Hunter says.

In spite of the apparatus' miserable liability history, a minimum of 500,000 tramps costing $200 to $2,000 will be sold here and overseas this year, according to statistics kept by the industry. That's twice as many tramps as were sold in 1992.

Assessing the risks

As an unpredictable and relatively new plaything for the masses, the backyard trampoline is an ideal platform for debating risk, danger and responsibility, hazy issues in a country where "go for the gusto" and "sue thy neighbor" are equally venerated credos.

The risk of owning a trampoline is known as an "attractive nuisance" in insurance parlance. But it "needs to be an informed risk," says Will Evans, a loss control specialist who examines summer camp programs across the country for the Markel Corp. in Richmond, Va.

"We need to take more time to understand what the potential dangers are. . . . We may have a situation where your trampoline sits next door to a neighbor who has a Rottweiler. The kids on the tramp drive the Rottweiler nuts.

"The Rottweiler comes over and munches a kid. Is it the trampoline's fault? It sure contributed to it. It's a unique situation each time."

Swimming pools, in-line skating, skiing, biking, skateboarding -- none is foolproof, but the risks they pose have been more or less accepted by society. Acceptable risk hinges on what we know, says Mr. Evans.

Consumers haven't yet figured out where trampolines belong in the risk continuum.

Should they be secured under lock and key, like swimming pools? What kind of supervision do they require? What if a neighbor's kid sneaks onto the tramp in the middle of the night?

Trampoline accidents are rare, but, "When things go wrong, they go wrong big time," says Irene Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Evanston Insurance Co., which specializes in underwriting high-hazard products.

It's not a matter of trampoline fatalities, which are comparatively few. It's the potential for quadriplegia and paraplegia, which are far more costly than death for an insurance company.

"High severity is how we consider that kind of claim," Ms. Hayes explains.

According to one epidemiological report, more than 100 cases of quadriplegia associated with trampoline injuries had been reported as of 1987. Verdicts involving such catastrophic tramp injuries have surpassed $14 million.

Previously, trampolines were not isolated as a specific liability, but as claims mount, insurance companies are paying close attention.

Risk too high

"As we find homeowners who do have trampolines, we have been in the process of taking underwriting actions, asking them to remove them or face the consequence of nonrenewal of policy," says Richard Berstein, vice president and general counsel for Metropolitan Property and Casualty, an affiliate of Metropolitan Life, in Rhode Island.

After handling numerous suits involving catastrophic spinal cord injuries, Metropolitan is no longer willing to manage the high risk presented by trampolines.

Liability issues don't faze Paul Goodwin.

He dismisses the legal and insurance industry minds who created this mess as parasites and proceeds with his work. A trampoline coach in Temple Hills, Prince George's County, Mr. Goodwin says that club members are covered by insurance provided by USA Trampoline and Tumbling.

He has homeowners insurance, but he isn't specifically covered for the huge, competition-level trampoline that consumes his front yard.

"I refuse to live my life worrying about things that I really have no control about anyway," says Mr. Goodwin.

"Taking reasonable precautions is about as much as you can do."

Kevin Hara, 21, became a quadriplegic after muffing a dismount (manufacturers recommend climbing, not jumping off) from his neighbor's trampoline at a 1991 high school graduation party in St. Louis, Mo.

He doesn't blame the trampoline.

"If you look at it, a lot of people get injured in car accidents. There's no need to call for the banning or destruction of all cars. . . .

"It was an unfortunate occurrence. I've used the trampoline hundreds of times without getting hurt."

And Mr. Hara, a pre-med student at Georgetown University, does not blame his neighbors. He chose not to sue them.

"They asked me if I wanted to use their homeowners insurance. I said no. I don't really think it was their fault."

L The neighbors decided on their own to remove the trampoline.

What was it that made the trampoline so irresistible?

"The fun," Mr. Hara says. "You feel like you're flying."

Especially if you ignore all those warnings.

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