Cape Gazette
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Proposed legislation could keep Punkin Chunkin in Sussex

Liability cap on damages remains big issue for festival organizers
By Nick Roth | Dec 09, 2013
Photo by: Ron MacArthur Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, plans to introduce legislation to place a cap on liability on certain damages should an accident occur. The World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association has stated the absence of a liability cap in Delaware has forced the organization to look for a new home.

State Senator Brian Pettyjohn wants to keep pumpkins flying each November in Sussex County for many years to come.

Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, has announced plans to introduce legislation to protect events such as Punkin Chunkin by placing a liability cap on certain damages should an accident occur.

Following the 2013 event, World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association President John Huber said there was no guarantee the event would remain in Delaware, citing issues with landowner liability and event costs. Pettyjohn's legislation would tackle one of those issues.

“We need to keep these community events happening, so that the public can enjoy them and the nonprofit organizations that host them can do their fundraising without the fear of a catastrophic lawsuit occurring,” Pettyjohn said.

The legislation is not specific to Punkin Chunkin, but was drafted with the event in mind. Pettyjohn says it applies to all events open to the general public hosted by nonprofit organizations no more than once per calendar year.

Neighboring states, such as Maryland, already have liability caps in place. Pettyjohn's legislation does not limit punitive damages or economic damages such as lost wages and medical bills. There would also be no limitation where gross negligence or intentional actions cause damage.

Frank Shade, director of public relations and marketing for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association, said securing a liability cap is a big step in keeping the three-day event in Delaware.

“Without it, we have no hope at all of staying in Delaware,” he said. “No landowner is going to allow us to be on their property if we can't ensure their property won't be put at risk.”

The association is being sued for $5.5 million by a volunteer injured during the 2011 event when an ATV overturned on him. In a case where the association is sued for more than its insurance policy, landowners could lose their property. Punkin Chunkin has been held at Wheatley Farm outside Bridgeville for the last seven years.

“They've been very generous with us,” Shade said. “Every landowner we've been with has lost money due to crop rotation. It always costs them money."

Event costs remains an issue as well; however, Shade said, it's more of an annoyance than a deterrent in keeping the event in Delaware.

“Event costs are what they are. It's the cost of doing business, and we don't agree with some of them,” he said. “It's my belief that every dollar a government agency takes from us is a dollar we can't give to children.”

The association has donated at least $50,000 annually to charities over the last five to six years, including St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, Child Help, Bless Our Children and the Autism Foundation. When costs go up, he said, the only place the money can come from is the donation pot.

The most important issue, he said, is capping liability. In talking with many legislators throughout the state, he said he believes there is enough support.

“They see the advantage of keeping an event like this in Delaware,” he said.

The Delaware General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday, Jan. 14.

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