Owner of inflatable that exploded and killed girl, 3, is jailed

Ava-May Littleboy was thrown into the air when the equipment failed on Gorleston beach in Norfolk.

Sam Russell
Friday 10 November 2023 13:24 GMT
Three-year-old Ava-May Littleboy, who died of a head injury after being thrown from an inflatable trampoline on a beach in Gorleston, Norfolk on July 1 2018. (Family handout/ PA)
Three-year-old Ava-May Littleboy, who died of a head injury after being thrown from an inflatable trampoline on a beach in Gorleston, Norfolk on July 1 2018. (Family handout/ PA) (PA Media)

The owner of an inflatable trampoline which exploded, killing a three-year-old girl, has been jailed for six months for health and safety offences.

Ava-May Littleboy was thrown into the air when the equipment failed on Gorleston beach in Norfolk, with a witness saying she went the “height of a house”, Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court heard.

Pascal Bates for Great Yarmouth Borough Council, which brought the prosecution together with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said Ava-May suffered serious head injuries and died in July 2018.

He said witnesses described her being thrown up to 40ft in the air, with one saying she went “higher than the surrounding buildings”.

Mr Bates said that a second girl, aged nine, who had been on the trampoline suffered “no significant injuries”.

District judge Christopher Williams, sentencing on Friday, said inflatable owner Curt Johnson was “wilfully blind to the risk” and that the inflatable “should not have been in use”.

He said: “This is a case that’s of such seriousness that I have to conclude a deterrent sentence is necessary.”

The judge, jailing Johnson for six months, said: “I reflect on the suffering and anguish the family have been through.

“Ultimately a child unnecessarily lost their life because of failures on your part to ensure you had appropriate risk assessments in place.”

Ava-May’s parents, who sat in the public gallery, hugged after the sentence was passed as wider members of the family wiped tears from their eyes.

Johnson, 52, showed no reaction a he was led to the cells.

The judge also disqualified Johnson from being a company director for five years and fined Johnsons Funfair Ltd £20,000.

He awarded the full costs to the council and HSE, of almost £300,000, with the court previously told that Johnson had an insurance policy in place that would cover this.

Johnson and his company Johnsons Funfair Ltd, both of Swanston’s Road, Great Yarmouth, had entered guilty pleas to two health and safety offences at an earlier hearing.

Both Johnson and the company, for which he acted as operations manager, admitted to importing an inflatable trampoline that they failed to ensure was safe.

They also both pleaded guilty to failing to ensure people not in their employment were not exposed to risks.

Mr Bates said the inflatable trampoline was a “sealed unit” but “had no safety valve to release pressure”.

“A child who’s ever got over enthusiastic with a party balloon knows if you put too much air into a sealed unit, sooner or later it will pop,” he said.

Mr Bates said that in 2017 Johnson, on behalf of the company, arranged the bespoke manufacture of the inflatable trampoline from a Chinese manufacturer.

“It’s common ground he negotiated hard on price and he had an eye to whether the inflatable he was supplied with was of suitable quality and durability,” he said.

“We say he didn’t to any great extent concern himself with safety.”

Mr Bates said a user’s manual “was never supplied or sought prior to the explosion”.

He said the business “didn’t meaningfully trade after July 1”, the day of the incident, with its licences pulled and the beach compound not reopening.

Oliver Campbell KC, for Johnson, said that Johnson and his wife “deeply regret” the incident and Ava-May’s “tragic death”.

“He apologises sincerely to the court and the family for his failings,” he said, adding that the company “ceased trading some time ago and will not trade again”.

Mr Campbell said that “despite the length of the investigation we do not know exactly how or why this trampoline so sadly exploded”.

He described the explosion as “unforeseeable”, adding that the “possibility of an explosion was not a recognised risk”.

He said that Johnson tried to kill himself by overdose in 2018, “has suffered from depression thereafter” and had received threats.

After Johnson was jailed, Mr Campbell said he would take instructions on whether the defendant would appeal against the sentence.

Ava-May’s father, Nathan Rowe, said outside court that it was the “right decision” and a “massive weight lifted from our shoulders” when Johnson was jailed.

Justice is being done,” he said.

HSE principal inspector Ivan Brooke said: “The operator flouted the rules on certification and testing to devastating consequences.

“Had the company carried out the required checks and followed the freely available, well-established guidance, this tragedy would not have happened.

“Since the tragedy, and following the inquest, we published supplementary guidance more specific to sealed inflatables.

“They should be checked over by the responsible body before they are used, and maintained effectively throughout.

“Incidents with inflatables are extremely rare, but we will not hesitate to take strong action if funfairs do not take the required precautions.”

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