In lawsuit, woman details injuries allegedly suffered in Punkin Chunkin mishap


Air cannons, capable of firing pumpkins thousands of feet, have been the star attraction at past Punkin Chunkin contests. (Delaware State News file)

WILMINGTON — A 46-page federal lawsuit detailed a New York woman’s claims of negligence causing severe injuries after an air cannon malfunctioned at last year’s Punkin Chunkin event held in northern Sussex County.

On Wednesday, Suzanne Dakessian brought the action against a wide-ranging group of defendants who contributed to the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition held Nov. 4-6, 2016 at Wheatley Farms in Bridgeville.

According to Ms. Dakessian, she suffered permanent brain damage and other critical injuries when struck by a vehicle-door sized metal trap door that detached as the “Punkin Reaper” contraption fired its final pumpkin of the competition.

Air gun operator William Schell IV, of Millsboro, “increased the pressure in the compressed air cannister … in order to achieve the longest potential pumpkin launch possible,” the lawsuit maintained, and pushed it beyond safe limits to increase the chance of failure and malfunction.

Also cited was Mr. Schell’s grandfather Dominick Daffner of Milton, who the action alleged assisted in “designing, developing, manufacturing, assembling, and testing” the air gun that injured Ms. Dakessin so badly that she was initially reported deceased by the Delaware State Police.

According to the allegations, among others, site landowners Dale and Jeffrey T. Wheatley, failed to provide safety netting and shields to those in the participant/media area in which Ms. Dalessio was managing a camera crew for Sharp Entertainment.

A supposed lack of coordination between organizers failed to provide “that the event was employing necessary inspection protocols, had adequate security and medical providers on site,,,,” also with a failure to “use reasonable care in the operation, management, maintenance, control and supervision” of Wheatley Farms during the event.

A crowd of nearly 100,000 spectators gathered for the weekend proceedings, papers said, and defendant Discovery Communications opted not to broadcast a program covering the event afterward.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control was included as a defendant for allegedly failing “to perform necessary and proper inspections of the Pumpkin Reaper air gun in question, were willfull, reckless, wanton and exhibited a conscious disregard for the health and safety of (spectators).”

The State of Delaware was included among the defendants.

The Harbeson-based World Punkin Chunkin, Inc. and Dover-located Punkin Chunkin Association were also sued, along with organization officials Frank Peyton of Milton, Frank Shade of Lewes, Terry Brewster of Georgetown, and David Quigley of Milton.

McCulley, Eastham, and Associates, Inc. of Greenup, Kentucky was hired for safety consulting services and was allegedly not registered to conduct business in Delaware, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit asked for a jury trial and is seeking past and future pain and suffering damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and costs, among other demands.

An uncertain future

On Aug. 11, Punkin Chunkin organizers issued a statement that indicated the event’s future was uncertain and may not continue past a scheduled November competiton.

The event lost 25 percent of its funding when the Science Channel separated after the 2016 accident, that followed other injury related issues during competitions.

“In life, there are uncertainties in everything we do,” World Punkin Chunkin Championship Association President Peyton said.

“Punkin Chunkin is not an exception. 2013 or even last year could have been the last year. We know that the event will happen again in 2017, but without an outpouring of worldwide community financial support, we are in trouble.”

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