Harvest Hill Farms, Hayride Driver, and Mechanic Indicted Over Deadly 2014 Hayride Accident

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In the fall of 2014, a tragic hayride rollover accident occurred. Each year farms throughout the northeast and throughout the country open their doors to fall agritainment activities. At some farms apple picking, fresh corn, or straight-from-the-farm products makes for the main draw for visitors. Other farms take a more novel approach and entice families and others to visit with elaborate attractions. Some farms may even offer engaging corn mazes, but as summer turns to fall and Halloween approaches farms will typically turn their attention to providing thrills and chills. Some farms may organize and lead visitors through a haunted farm house. Others may advertise and offer haunted hay rides.

At Harvest Hill Farms, it was the hayride that caused the previously locally-known small farm to rocket to national attention. The hayride, known as the Gauntlet, was the attraction where 17 year-old Cassidy Charette lost her life and where 20 others were hurt in a hayride rollover accident. While the investigation took about three-quarters of a year, from the fruits of the investigation prosecutors filed multiple charges against the farm, the hayride tractor driver, and the Jeep mechanic.

What Charges Have Been Filed in Response to the Hayride Accident?

While the Androscoggin County district attorney’s office apparently failed to seek an indictment against the farm’s owner, indictments were sought against the farm and other involved individuals. The entity Harvest Hill Farms and the driver of the Jeep that overturned along with the tractor it was hauling were indicted on multiple charges. The indictments include reckless conduct, driving to endanger, aggravated assault, and manslaughter. Manslaughter is a Class A crime in Maine.

The mechanic reportedly responsible for maintaining the truck, Phillip Therberge, was also indicted. Mr. Therberge now faces charges for a single count of reckless conduct, a Class D crime.

District Attorney Andrew Robinson crowed about the indictments stating “These indictments represent the next step in our pursuit of justice for the many victims of this crash.” However the parents of the young girl killed in the accident were more reserved and guarded in their characterization. They stated:

“Our family respects the court system and we support the decision of the grand jury,” it said. “We have watched this process from the sidelines, and have not tried to influence the decisions of prosecutors. Instead, we continue to place our trust in officials to take the steps they feel are right. There are many possible outcomes to this tragic case for everyone involved, and we are prepared to accept all of them.”

However the family did add that they support the idea that people should face the consequences for the actions they take when those decisions affect the health and safety of others. However, the family reiterated that no action can ever bring back their daughter or provide relief from their “lifelong yearning and grief.”

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Are These Types of Charges Typical After an Amusement Accident?

Searches for past amusement park, fair and carnival indictments turned-up only a few results. Six Flags Great Adventure’s operating company and several executives faced manslaughter charges after its infamous 1984 haunted house fire. In 1998, a Clementon Lake Amusement Park rollercoaster operator was charged with a violation of failing to protect the public health and safety – a third-degree charge – after he allegedly disabled the automatic brakes to provide riders an extra turn around the course. In 2013, a North Carolina amusement ride owner was charged with assault after it was discovered that a ride had compromised safety devices that resulted in five injuries. In 2014, a Nashua, New Hampshire man was charged with three misdemeanors after a bounce house on his property went airborne and injured three children. The Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office had initially stated that it did not intend to file charges because there was no prosecutable offense.

The consequences faced by the company and associated parties show that even in states where certain amusements are ostensibly unregulated, there can still be consequences for employees, companies and operators who act in an unsafe manner. However one important and essential difference is that regulation is typically forward-looking and attempts to correct issues and safety problems before injuries and deaths can be inflicted. By contrast while the threat criminal prosecution may have some deterrent effect, this type of action is wholly focused on hindsight and punishing the actions that have already caused life-altering injury or death. Furthermore, even the deterrent effect is questionable because it is so rare for prosecutors to bring charges against operators of commercial amusements like fairs, carnivals, waterparks, and farms that operate hayrides.

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Charges Brought in Unrelated Waterville, Maine Carnival Accidents As State Moves to Regulate Hayrides

However, the climate in Maine regarding the regulation of amusement parks seems to have shifted after the fall hayride accident and media coverage. After two separate June accidents at a Waterville carnival where long-time amusement operator Smokey’s Greater Shows provided the rides, charges came quickly.  The Owner of the carnival, Janette Gilmore, faces charges for failing to train a ride operator. An employee was charged with falsifying evidence after he tried to repair the ride before inspectors could arrive.

Additionally, and as we have previously wrote about, Maine legislators are also working to overhaul the regulation of amusements and rides in the state. One goal is to close the loophole that exempts certain attractions, like hayrides, from state oversight. While the law was vetoed by the governor, the legislature was able to overwhelmingly override that veto. Legislators and stakeholders are currently investigating viable means of regulation.

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