Future of Punkin Chunkin remains up in the air

(Chuck Snyder/for NewsWorks)

(Chuck Snyder/for NewsWorks)

The future of Delaware’s World Champion Punkin Chunkin is uncertain after a woman was critically injured on Sunday.

The event for which teams compete to fling pumpkins the greatest distance, and also raise money for charity, was abruptly halted when an air cannon exploded. Now a 39-year-old woman remains in critical condition.

The event, which takes place at Wheatley Farms in Bridgeville, had returned after a two-year hiatus, following a personal injury lawsuit stemming from an ATV accident that allegedly caused a worker’s spinal injury.

Dale Wheatley, who owns the land, cancelled the event, but later signed back on when he and the organizer found an insurance policy that would protect him. The lawsuit was later dismissed.

Wheatley, and the organizer of the event Frank Payton, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to the event website, competitors and attendants are required to sign a waiver of liability and assumption of risk.

Attorney Sam Pratcher, a partner with the Weik, Nitsche & Dougherty law firm in Wilmington, said a general release allowing a party to avoid its own negligence is permissible under Delaware law, but is not favored.

He said the release has to be unambiguous, not unconscionable and not against public policy. However, there’s a difference between simple negligence and gross negligence, he said.

“It’s my understanding the issue that arose was a result of the product,” said Pratcher, who’s also the chair of the Torts and Insurance Section of the Delaware State Bar Association and the Board of Directors for the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association.

“You have a defective product, which is different than a person going to an event with the expectation pumpkins will be tossed—that’s different than the product actually malfunctioning.”

He said he believes the injured woman would have a strong case against the organizers.

“The defendant might argue the assumption of risk applies, but if you have a product that’s defective or not properly operating that’s not something she assumes the risk for,” Pratcher said.

He said he can’t predict the future of the event, but said the organizer may have difficulty finding additional insurance coverage in the future.

“They need to protect the public, because the safety of the individuals attending the event, that should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Pratcher said.

Delaware State Police say an air cannon known as “Pumpkin Reaper” exploded after the trap door where pumpkins are loaded separated from the cannon during its launch. Debris from the explosion hit the woman in the face and neck, say police, who originally reported she had died.

On Monday, police said there were no updates on the investigation into the incident, and the woman remains in critical condition at Christiana Hospital in Newark. 

A 56-year-old man also was injured in the explosion. He was treated on the scene by paramedics and taken to nearby Nanticoke Memorial Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

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