Punkin Chunkin could leave state, senator warns – Failure to cap lawsuit awards might force event to be relocated

DOVER — Punkin Chunkin could be in danger of leaving the state, according to one lawmaker.

For more than 25 years, the event was held in Sussex County, most recently at Wheatley Farms in Bridgeville.

But a 2013 lawsuit from a volunteer injured during the festival caused the landowner to pull his property as a site for the event.

A man prepares his air cannon at a previous Punkin Chunkin.

Punkin Chunkin was shifted to Dover to take place at Dover International Speedway, but technical difficulties and an inability to set up in time caused it to be canceled in 2014.

With no location scheduled beyond that, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said he’s worried what has been a fall tradition will go elsewhere.

“I have heard directly from the organizers that there is a distinct possibility that it might have to go out of state,” he said.

As a result, he introduced a bill that would cap noneconomic damages at $1 million for select special events. The Republican-backed Senate Bill 14 would apply only to special events held by nonprofits once a year.

It’s a a continuation of a proposal Sen. Pettyjohn first sketched out in the prior legislative session.

The bill faced opposition from the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association (DTLA), who feared it would lead to larger tort reform.

On Wednesday, the Senate Executive Committee declined to release the proposal, with the four Democrats voting against release and the two Republicans voting . Five of the six members of the committee represent New Castle County.

“There are organizations that would have benefited that are up in New Castle County,” Sen. Pettyjohn said. He cited the Italian and Greek festivals in Wilmington and Newark’s Oktoberfest.

He believes members were swayed by the Trial Lawyers Association. He believes a decision was made before Wednesday’s hearing in which a representative from the association testified.

In a statement, DTLA President Chase Brockstedt denied claims the group is not concerned about Punkin Chunkin.

“DTLA supports keeping this event in Delaware and returning it to Sussex County,” he said. “Any suggestion that this proposed law, which places arbitrary caps on damages and denies citizens access to Delaware’s highly regarded court system, will keep an event in Delaware (or bring this one back to Sussex County) is wrong.

“Further, any suggestion that DTLA’s efforts will force the event to leave Delaware is unfounded political spin. Passage of this bill would have made special events in Delaware less safe for patrons and participants, and that is a proposition which DTLA strongly opposes.”

A cap would have allowed event organizers to purchase insurance up to that ceiling. But the bill’s failure could discourage interested individuals from supplying their land.

“I’ve got a family farm that’s been in my family for generations,” the Republican sponsor said. “I wouldn’t want to put my family’s farm at risk for an event that somebody could be injured and could sue the organization, sue myself or the family farm for millions of dollars and we might lose it. That’s a real possibility here.”

Wheatley Farms and the Punkin Chunkin Association are listed as defendants in court documents, with the injured volunteer seeking millions. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Moving the event not only would mean the loss of one of Delaware’s most unique practices, Sen. Pettyjohn said, but would also have an economic impact.

He said the Delaware Economic Development Office estimated the three-day festival provided $15 million in local impact. The Punkin Chunkin Association also supplies $50,000 in scholarships to local students.

To where Punkin Chunkin might relocate is unknown, although a return to Delaware’s southernmost county has not been ruled out.

On the event’s Facebook page, organizers informed followers about the fate of Senate Bill 14, stating “Punkin Chunkin is in support of Senate Bill 14 but this bill is not the end of this Sussex County tradition.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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