Assessing the Factors in the Hayride Tragedy that Killed Teen

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On Saturday evening October 11th, 2014, a haunted Halloween-themed hayride accident caused the death of a teenage girl and serious injuries to at least 22 others when a 1979 Jeep CJ5 pulling a hay wagon was unable to stop on a hill and overturned. The overturned trailer tumbled down the steep hill, eventually crashing into a tree. An initial investigation indicates that there may have been a mechanical problem with the Jeep. However, in light of my experience as an auto defect, rollover, and amusement park accident attorney for over three and a half decades, the first question that jumped to my mind was: Did the driver operate the vehicle while exceeding its towing capacity?

What Is the Towing Capacity of a Jeep CJ5?

To begin with, let us examine the circumstances surrounding the hayride accident in light of some characteristics of the Jeep CJ5. The Jeep CJ5 is described as being a small two-door, soft-top, four-wheel drive Jeep. The vehicle weight is 2,740 pounds with an estimated payload weight of 1,010 pounds and a towing weight not to exceed 2,000 pounds.

While I am uncertain at this time of the weight of the loaded flatbed being towed by the Jeep, I would be willing to bet that it was greater than the recommended tow loads. In light of the 22 injuries and one fatality, there were, at a minimum, 23 people on the trailer. Even assuming an average weight of 100 pounds per a person, that would place the weight of the trailer’s human cargo at 2300 pounds. This is already greater than the recommended towing weight limits without accounting for the weight of the trailer itself. However, officials have estimated that there were about 30 people on the ride at the time of the crash. If we continue to assume that the average passenger weight was 100 pounds, this means that the cargo by itself likely weighed roughly 3000 pounds. When the trailer’s weight is accounted for, it appears that, in all likelihood, the towing limits were exceeded significantly.

Also important to note is that this 1979 Jeep CJ5 is now 35 years old. For a vehicle of such an advanced age, the types and frequency of maintenance performed are essential to know. Depending on the maintenance and repairs provided, this vehicle could range from being a relatively well-maintained SUV capable of towing close to its rated capacity to a rusted-out and worn-out vehicle incapable of safely performing the activity a new vehicle is rated for.

Are There Common Problems with the Jeep CJ5?

The Jeep CJ5 is noted for its history of high rollover and ejection rates. A 1981 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report characterized the Jeep CJ5 as having the “Highest Rollover Crash Rate” when compared to other then-contemporary sport-utility vehicles.  Such a determination was not necessarily surprising as this light sport-utility vehicle was originally developed for military purposes and then later modified and adapted for civilian uses. Although many people have a tendency to think that a Jeep 4×4 is safe in any on or off-road conditions, even among smaller SUVs the CJ5 performed poorly. The Jeep has a high center of gravity that when combined with its narrow wheel placement base and relatively lightweight, the rollover risk is increased significantly. The study likewise concluded that “The track width and center of gravity of a vehicle are very important factors with respect to rollovers. Thus, it is not surprising that utility vehicles, which typically have higher centers of gravity than passenger cars and pickup trucks, are more likely to roll over.”

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As a popular vehicle for enthusiasts to repair, rebuild, and customize, there is a wealth of information regarding common problems with the CJ5 due to design, manufacture or the toll of time. Some of these problems as identified by the Four Wheeler Network and JP Magazine include:

  • Pitman arm – The factory-installed pitman arm that controls the steering of the wheels was composed of ductile cast iron. What this means is under high-stress situations, especially with larger tires, the nut holding the arm in place may cause the splines to strip-out or for the arm itself to bend.
  • External body locking hubs – The five and six-bolt locking hubs are affixed to the hub body with bolts that are known to loosen.
  • Steering shaft coupler – The factory coupler is long worn out at this point. Symptoms of a worn out coupler include sloppy steering and drift. In especially serious cases the coupler can detach.
  • Power steering box – Even in new condition, enthusiasts routinely characterized the vehicle’s power steering box as being inadequate. Wear and tear on these units now makes them more prone to cracking thereby rendering your vehicle’s steering inoperative. A number of third-party replacement boxes are available.

The existence of several of these common problems is buttressed by several safety recalls for defective and unsafe characteristics. Service bulletin 78V243000 noted that “The clamp bolts on the adjuster tube that fastens the connecting rod to the pitman arm end assembly may be loose. These loose bolts could cause shifting of the steering wheel position, relative to the straight-ahead-front wheel position, and loss of steering.” A second service bulletin, 79V070000, recalled the powertrain because “Certain vehicles may have an incorrect gasket between the transmission and the transfer case. An incorrect gasket may interfere with the normal flow of lubricant.” This defect could cause the loss of vehicle control and owners were advised to avoid prolonged driving at highway speeds.

Is a Lack of Oversight Creating a Nationwide Race to the Bottom for Safety?

The more concerning fact remains when we consider that there is no state regulation or government oversight of haunted hayrides in Maine and many other states. Unfortunately, in most states, including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where I live, very little regulation is addressed with regard to hayrides and trailers that are less than 3,000 lbs.

In fact, The Motor Vehicle Code of Pennsylvania exempts many trailers and only requires that brakes be inspected beyond the initial confirmation of a VIN plate. Many state laws, including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Maine, are silent as to any design or construction specifications for those vehicles or for towing chains or hitches. In most of the cases we have investigated, we found that tow trailers, including hayrides, have obvious safety violations relating to lighting, braking, and inspection requirements.

Furthermore, over our years of practice, we have found that many trailers are made just to be under the gross weight of 3,000 pounds so as not to be subject to regulations. And yes, even a homemade trailer is allowed with the only concern in most states being whether the trailer’s lights are working at the time of registration. What this means is that very few states consider the quality of construction.

Unfortunately, many hayride operators continue to cut corners on safety and properly staffing the loading and unloading positions of the rides. Often these vehicles are brought to short, jerking stops which can cause occupants to be thrown from the rides. In other instances, drivers may accelerate or brake abruptly to increase the thrill factor of the experience. However innocent children can be thrown from the ride and possibly under the tires. Many times our investigations revealed that hayride operators are simply not paying attention to the precious cargo on the ride and many of the drivers are temporary employees who may have questionable backgrounds that were not carefully screened out.

Furthermore, and perhaps most shockingly of all, because no federal law or national agency requires amusement park operators or hayride operators to file an accident report, there are no general, uniform reporting requirements on a national level for amusement or hayride injuries and fatalities. Since the amusement and hayride industry is highly unregulated a serious death of information exists when it comes to amusement park and hayride accidents and injuries. This means that the most precious cargo of all, innocent consumers and children, are often left in the dark about the risks and past accidents operators have been involved in. What this means is that consumers cannot be reasonably expected to guard their own safety or select a safer operator for their family because the information is not available.

What Caused the Hayride to Jackknife?

While all of the facts and details are not entirely clear, one can weigh the likelihood of a number of scenarios based on what we do know. In the recent Maine accident, one can imagine a heavily loaded trailer as officials pegged the number of riders at about 30. We can also consider that it is likely that the payload and weight limitations were exceeded based on an average occupant weight of 100 pounds. We also know that the Jeep and tractor were being operated on a steep embankment.  Finally, we know that the Jeep had missed a turn and the driver was likely attempting to backtrack. Although the driver claimed that he had a mechanical problem with the Jeep, I suspect that what we really have at work here is the tail wagging the dog, that is, a loss of control when the driver realized his mistake and attempted to compensate –possibly exacerbated by the vehicle type, age, and load being towed – that resulted in a jackknifed trailer that careened into a tree.

I would also be curious to know whether or not the vehicle being towed had dual wheels and a secondary braking system. These safety features can prevent situations like these thereby preventing needless tragedy. The police investigation, expected to be completed on Monday or Tuesday of this week, should also reveal additional information regarding the characteristics of the vehicle and whether a mechanical defect occurred.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families and we urge that lawmakers conduct an independent investigation utilizing a knowledgeable accident reconstructionist and engineers who are familiar with such accidents. Furthermore, all evidence should be properly preserved to avoid exploitation of any potential contributing sources and/or factors. If you have been impacted by this tragedy or a similar event, please call the auto defect and amusement park accident attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm by calling (215) 246-9000 or contact us online.

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