Revisiting the Harvest Hills Hay Ride Tragedy: Trial Expected to Begin Thursday

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For thousands of children, teens, and their parents, heading to a local farm during the fall harvest season is an annual tradition. For many, memories of pumpkin or apple picking are fond memories of the years that have passed. However, as farmers and others involved in agribusiness have sought to develop new revenue streams, the entertainment offerings at local and regional farms have expanded dramatically. It is now commonplace in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation for farms to offer increasingly elaborate rides and agritainment attractions often blurring the line between a fair or carnival and a farm. Common forms of rides and attractions available at farms now include corn mazes, horse or pony rides, wine tasting events, and hayrides.  

While the risk of injury is always present, the fact that many farms are being “resourceful” and putting old equipment to work hauling people on hayrides should be of particular concern. In fact, the fatal 2014 Harvest Hill hayride accident that killed one 17-year-old teen and injured 22 others is a clear harbinger of the potential consequences of utilizing an improvised equipment to provide services to the public. This risk is further exacerbated by the patchwork nature of ride and amusement regulation in the United States.  Have you been injured at a fair or on a hayride? Contact a Pennsylvania hayride accident lawyer today.

Remembering the Hayride Accident that Injured 22 and Killed One Teenager

According to news reports from the time, the fatal hayride accident occurred on a fall evening in October 2014 on the Harvest Hill hayride known as The Gauntlet. The hayride was generally a leisurely ride, however, from time to time, farm employees in costume would attempt to scare riders. However, one part of the ride borders on a “thrill ride.” On this portion of the ride, the Jeep and trailer climb a steep hill. The driver would routinely pump the brakes or accelerate sharply to give riders “a thrill.”

However, on the night in question, the driver of the tractor is believed to have missed the usual and customary route that the vehicle traveled. This resulted in the Jeep and trailer ending up on an incline that was significantly steeper than expected or intended. As such, the 1979 Jeep and trailer overturned spilling its occupants.

However, the potential operator error was far from the only contributing cause in this matter. One must also consider the use of a nearly 25-year-old vehicle with a known greater than average rollover risk. Furthermore, one must also consider the fact that it is highly likely that the trailer exceeds the Jeep’s maximum towing capacity under optimal conditions. A1979 Jeep CJ5 has an estimated payload of 1010 lbs., a maximum towing weight of 2,000 lbs. while braked, and a gross vehicle weight rating of 750 pounds. Even if each of the more than 20 guests present in the trailer weighed only 100 pounds, the trailer would still have been at or over the maximum limit. In reality, the vehicle’s effective towing capacity was probably less due to vehicle age, maintenance, terrain, and other factors.

Maine’s Fire Marshall to Testify regarding Hayride Crash, Lack of Inspections

On Tuesday, September 20, 2016, Joseph E. Thomas, a top administrator at the Office of the State Fire Marshal, appeared in court for a pre-trial hearing regarding the fatal 2014 crash at a Mechanic Falls, Maine hayride. During the course of questioning, Thomas was asked by the attorney for the defendant whether any portion of the agritainment industry is regulated by the State Fire Marshal’s office. Mr. Thomas answered that no part of this industry is regulated or overseen by his office. He is expected to testify that, “in this industry, at this time, there is no standard of care.”

In Maine, the Office of the State Fire Marshall is responsible for the inspection of fixed and moveable rides at fairs, carnivals, and amusement parks. A proposed bill known as ‘Cassidy’s Law’, so-named after the 17-year-old girl who was killed in the hayride accident, would have also required the state fire marshal’s office to inspect and regulate of agritainment rides. Unfortunately, the state legislature failed to pass this bill and other proposed measures. Therefore, hay rides and similar attracts remain outside of regulation in the state.

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Hayrides Are Still Not Regulated in Maine. Are Rides Inspected Regularly in Your State?

It is important to reemphasize the fact that hayrides at farms and other agritainment facilities are still unregulated in Maine. Depending on where you live, this is likely to also apply in your state. While The Reiff Law Firm’s home state of Pennsylvania is often viewed as one of the more stringent regulators of fair and carnival rides, hayrides are still unregulated in the state. Haunted houses are indeed overseen by the state’s Department of Agriculture, but hay rides are not within the agency’s jurisdiction. In fact, it appears that only one state, Rhode Island,  has laws on the books regulating hayrides in some way.

Thus as Halloween, harvest festivals, and the fall agritainment season ramps up, remain wary regarding the safety hay rides and other attractions at farms. The truth is that the patchwork of safety regulations makes it difficult for parents and caregivers to understand what rides are covered and inspected and what rides are not.  If equipment seems old, in need of maintenance, or if something just doesn’t seem right, please don’t allow your child or loved one to ride. If you or a loved one were hurt or experienced a death due to a hay ride accident, contact a Philadelphia wrongful death attorney today.

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