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Punkin Chunkin canceled in face of lawsuit

Bridgeville farm owners hesitant to host event
August 23, 2017

No pumpkins will fly in Sussex County this fall.

World Championship Punkin Chunkin organizers announced Aug. 23 that the 2017 event has been canceled.

The announcement comes one week after a federal lawsuit was filed against Punkin Chunkin organizers, consultants and two participants, state agencies, Discovery Communications Inc. and two members of the Wheatley family, who own the Bridgeville farm where the event was held.

Suzanne Dakessian filed a lawsuit Aug. 16, seeking compensatory and punitive damages and other costs stemming from the severe injuries she received when an air cannon malfunctioned during the 2016 event, blowing off a heavy metal door that flew into the air and then hit Dakessian in the head and face.

In a statement on the event's website, Punkin Chunkin Association President Frank Payton said the landowners are reluctant to host the 2017 event in light of the new lawsuit.

“With less than 74 days until our event, we are left with no options,” the statement reads. “It is unfortunate that Suzanne Dakessian was injured, and we continue to extend our best wishes to her, her family and her loved ones. We have no further comment at this time.”

This is not the first time the Chunk has been canceled due to legal action.

In 2011, event volunteer Daniel Fair of Lewes suffered a spinal injury when the ATV he was driving as a spotter overturned. He filed a lawsuit in 2013, seeking more than $4 million in damages that forced event organizers to leave the Wheatley farm and eventually cancel the 2014 and 2015 festivities.

That civil lawsuit was dismissed in summer 2015.

Event organizers worked to bring back the Chunk, eyeing The Woodlands at Dover International Speedway for the 2015 event, but insurance and logistical problems forced organizers to abandon that idea.

The insurance policy organizers secured for the possible Dover location reopened the door to talks with the Wheatley family, who eventually allowed the event to return to their 1,200-acre farm. That policy came with higher costs, Payton said in previous interviews, and prompted organizers to crack down on alcohol policies.

Payton also pleaded with the public Aug. 10 to financially support the Chunk. He warned 2017 could be the last year of the event unless sponsors stepped forward.

The announcement canceling the 2017 event is the first statement organizers have made since Dakessian filed the lawsuit, which states her medical bills total more than $75,000 and that last year's incident left her with irreversible brain damage, fractures of her skull and face, blindness in her right eye and permanent damage to her left arm.

Dakessian was in the restricted competition and media area filming the event for the Discovery Channel when an airgun, the Pumpkin Reaper, malfunctioned. The television special was canceled after the incident.

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