Owner of inflatable that exploded and killed girl, 3, is jailed
16th November 2023

Funfair owner is jailed after girl, 3, was killed when bouncy castle exploded and she was thrown 40 feet into the air in front of her horrified parents

  • Curt Johnson jailed after being ‘willfully blind’ to risk of danger from inflatable

The owner of an bouncy castle which exploded and killed a three-year-old girl by throwing her 40ft into the air has been jailed for six months.

Ava-May Littleboy was flung ‘the height of a house’ as she played on the apparatus with her Aunt Abbie on Gorleston beach in Norfolk on June 1, 2018, Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court heard.

Her parents watched on in horror as the force of the blast caused the little girl to flip over five or six times in midair before hitting the ground – suffering a fatal head injury. 

Pascal Bates for Great Yarmouth Borough Council, which brought the prosecution alongside the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), described how Ava-May sadly died of her injuries.

The bouncy castle’s owner Curt Johnson, 52, was ‘willfully blind to the risk’ and the inflatable ‘should not have been in use’, district judge Christopher Williams said.

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

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 

A police cordon at Gorleston beach in Norfolk, where Ava-May Littleboy was thrown from a bouncy castle

Prosecutor Mr Bates said witnesses described Ava-May 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’.

Judge Williams, sentencing on Friday, 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.

Ava-May´s parents, Nathan Rowe and Chloe Littleboy, hugged in court when the sentence was passed (Joe Giddens/PA)

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.’

Curt Johnson of Johnsons Funfair Ltd, pictured in 2020, has been jailed for six months for two health and safety offences (Joe Giddens/ PA)

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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