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Woman injured at 2016 Punkin Chunkin files suit

Producer names air gun team, organizers, Discovery Channel among defendants
Suzanne Dakessian, far left, works at Punkin Chunkin before she was critically injured. RON MACARTHUR PHOTO
August 18, 2017

The television producer critically injured in last year's World Championship Punkin Chunkin has filed a lawsuit against the Punkin Chunkin association, the state of Delaware and individuals involved with the event.

Suzanne Dakessian filed a lawsuit Aug. 16 in U.S. District Court demanding a jury trial to determine compensatory and punitive damages and other costs.

Dakessian attended Punkin Chunkin as part of a production team filming the event for the Discovery Channel. On Nov. 6, 2016, Dakessian was in the restricted competition and media area when an air cannon named the Pumpkin Reaper malfunctioned, blowing a heavy metal door into the air.

“Dakessian started to run, but looked over her shoulder just as the heavy car-door-sized trap door made of metal fell from the sky, striking her with tremendous force in the head and face,” the lawsuit states. “The extreme force of the blow from the large metal trap door knocked Plaintiff Ms. Dakessian to the ground, where she lay motionless. The flimsy hard hat she was provided gave her no protection from the blow.”

Police initially reported Dakessian was dead, but retracted the statement after she was flown to Christiana Hospital and stabilized. She remained in critical condition and in a coma after surgeons removed part of her skull because of brain swelling, the lawsuit states.

Dakessian was left with irreversible brain damage, fractures of her skull and face, blindness in her right eye and serious injury that has permanently damaged her left arm.

“As a sole proximate result of the catastrophic injuries suffered by the plaintiff, she has been incapacitated from her employment and will be so incapacitated in the future with a resultant loss therefrom,” the lawsuit states.

The suit notes her medical bills are more than $75,000. In addition to compensatory and punitive damages, Dakessian seeks attorney's fees and costs, the cost of the lawsuit and post-judgment interest. She also seeks any profits the event made.

Listed at the top of the defendants list are William Schell of Millsboro and Dominick Daffner of Milton, a grandson and grandfather team who designed and operated Pumpkin Reaper.

The lawsuit states Schell and Daffner failed to build an air cannon that was safe and would not cause injury to others.

Also listed as defendants are World Championship Punkin Chunkin Inc.; Punkin Chunkin Association and its officers Frank Payton, president, Frank Shade, vice president, Terry Brewster, treasurer, and David Quigley, secretary. The suit goes on to name safety consultants McCulley, Eastham and Associates Inc.; Wheatley Farms, locale of the 2016 Punkin Chunkin, and its owners E. Dale Wheatley and Jeffrey T. Wheatley; Discovery Communications Inc.; the State of Delaware and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

All defendants are being sued in connection with negligence; the State of Delaware and DNREC are being sued in connection with failure to adequately inspect. The lawsuit states the state inspection under the Boiler Safety Program failed to detect the Pumpkin Reaper's faulty air tank, which led to Dakessian's injuries.

In an Aug. 10 Cape Gazette article, Payton said organizers planned to hold Punkin Chunkin in November, although it could be the last event unless more sponsors sign on.

Payton could not reached for comment. DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti did not respond to a request for comment. Discovery Communications Inc. declined to comment.