There probably hasn’t been more disappointment associated with a pumpkin-related event since the Great Pumpkin failed to show up for Linus and Sally in the beloved TV special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” I’m talking about the cancellation of the annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition in Delaware after nearly 30 years.
No, I’m not out of my gourd. This is a serious event that has had a major positive economic impact on the rural part of Delaware that has hosted the competition. As many as 20,000 fans have travelled to Sussex County in recent years to see pumpkins be launched in the air via slingshots, catapults and even pneumatic cannons.
The event started in 1986, and there’s an interesting history of the competition on the Punkin Chunkin website. Despite its enormous popularity – it was even featured on the Discovery Channel’s, Mythbusters, show – it was cancelled in 2014 and won’t be held this year, either.
Why? A couple of years ago, a volunteer was injured in an ATV accident and filed a lawsuit. Daniel Fair was a “spotter” and, along with others, rode an all-terrain vehicle through a field to help determine the distances competitors flung their pumpkins. The ATV he was riding flipped in 2011, and he suffered serious injuries. He filed a lawsuit seeking at least $4.5 million in damages.
The Wilmington News Journal reported that owner of the farm argued there was nothing inherently dangerous about the path Fair was riding on and that “its existence was obvious and known to all.” It estimates that “Fair, a repeat volunteer, drove an ATV over it 150 times between 2007 and 2011 without a problem, as did plenty of other people.”
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the parties settled out of court. Of course, that started a domino effect, and now, affordable insurance for the event is impossible to find, and the farmer who hosted it won’t let it return to his property.
That’s a shame. In a news report that aired on ABC-affiliate, WMDT-TV, Delaware Senator Brian Pettyjohn noted that in addition to all of the economic benefits enjoyed by the local businesses who served the thousands of people who came to the event, Punkin Chunkin raised $50,000 for student scholarships and $100,000 for charities over the years.
To help save the event, Senator Pettyjohn introduced legislation to cap pain-and-suffering awards in lawsuits against non-profit charities sponsoring annual events, but as WMDT reported in a follow-up story, it was blocked in committee, and “supporters of the bill said lobbying by trial lawyers defeated the measure.”
So, is the Punkin Chunkin competition history? An article on the Delaware Surf Fishing website reports that “due to this lack of protection, Punkin Chunkin organizers are starting to look out of state” for a new location.
To stop that from happening, a grassroots movement called #savethechunk has now sprouted up on Facebook and Twitter, and leaders of the effort still hope to convince Delaware legislators to enact legislation that will allow the event to remain in that state.
This situation reminds me of a time when a group of citizens in Connecticut rallied to keep public bike trails open there after a lawsuit by an injured biker forced the trails to be closed. I discussed this on my blog at the time, and a groundswell of public support led by hardworking volunteers there eventually led to legislation being enacted that allowed the trails to re-open. If it could be done in Connecticut, it can be done in Delaware.
Hat tip to Walter Olson for alerting us to this story on Overlawyered.com.