Lawyers work to keep Punkin Chunkin in Sussex

Landowner liability remains a major stumbling block
Air cannons are on the firing line during the 2012 Punkin Chunkin. BY RON MACARTHUR
January 17, 2014

Lawyers are working to ensure that World Championship Punkin Chunkin, a premier event in Sussex County, stays in the county where it started almost 30 years ago.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said on Jan. 15 that members of the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association are working with the association and the owner of the parcel near Bridgeville where the event takes place to ink a new contract that provides better legal protection to the landowner, Wheatley Farms.

Pettyjohn said Wheatley Farms does not charge the association for use of the land.

Liability protection for Wheatley Farms was one of the requests made by the association in an effort to keep the event in Sussex County. The association had requested legislation to put a financial cap on the amount a lawsuit could be filed.

Pettyjohn was prepared to introduce legislation to provide a cap, but now says it's not necessary.

Pettyjohn told Sussex County Council Jan. 14 legislation is not needed because the landowner is protected by the indemnity and hold-harmless clause in Delaware contract law. “It's not needed to keep Punkin Chunkin in Sussex County,” he said.

In addition, he said, there is little support from Democrats for the bill, and the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association opposes it. “They say the landowner has protection without legislation,” Pettyjohn said.

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, told Pettyjohn the cap would add a second safeguard for a landowner named in a lawsuit. “The cap would at least give groups a target to purchase insurance,” Cole said.

Pettyjohn agreed with Cole that the bill still has merit. “I will keep it filed away and perhaps bring it out again when the time is right,” he said.

The World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association is being sued for $5.5 million by a volunteer injured during the 2011 event when an ATV overturned on him. “At that time we had an insurance policy for $3 million, and we were told that was more than sufficient,” said Frank Shade, an association trustee and former president.

The organization had threatened to move the popular event that attracted 70,000 last year. Association President John Huber said the board wants to keep the event in Bridgeville, but other areas have expressed interest in hosting it. A final decision will be made by March, he said. The association has two concerns that need to be addressed: landowner liability and costs, Huber said.