A tragic fall hayride accident has taken the life of one 17-year-old child and critically injured a 16-year-old child. The accident occurred at Harvest Hill Farms which bills itself as New England’s premier agritainment destination featuring Pumpkin Land, a seasonal Halloween-themed venue with a corn maze and pick your own pumpkin. There were approximately 500 visitors at the farm when the accident occurred and six different hayride trailers with six different drivers were working.
As an attorney who has been prosecuting hayride, amusement accidents, and vehicle rollovers for over three decades, I remain concerned that while the Consumer Product Safety Commission has estimated that the number of serious injuries and deaths from hayrides has risen dramatically. And yet, there is little or minimal regulation to improve safety and prevent accidents. Unfortunately, the regulation and inspection of amusement rides, including hayrides, is left up to state or local municipalities and as a result, many hayride operators are not regulated at all. If proper control mechanisms and regulations are not in place, hayride events are often accidents waiting to happen.
A Fall Hayride Can Turn Deadly
According to news sources, Sheriff Guy Desjardins stated that the fatal hayride accident occurred at approximately 8:30 p.m. when the driver of the Jeep pulling the hayride trailer near a “haunted house” at the top of the hill missed a right-hand turn and went off of the steep dirt road. Straying from the dirt road caused the tractor to jackknife and overturn. Desjardins further noted that he had never seen a single incident that resulted in so many injuries. As many as 12 ambulances and life flight helicopters were required.
Although the farm has been operating the hayride for at least five years and has never had an accident, sources in Maine indicate they are not aware of any regulations for hayrides and the amusement or quasi-amusement did not require a license. This is chiefly because most hayrides involve the use of a trailer attached to a tractor or truck pull and NHTSA has admitted that no standards exist for trailer hitches. Unfortunately in most states, very little regulation addresses hayrides and trailers that are less than 3,000 lbs.
Profitability of Hayride Trailers Emphasized over Safety?
In many of our cases, we have noted that most of the trailers are made to be just under the gross weight of 3000 lbs. so as not to be subject to any regulations. Yes, even homemade trailers are allowed in almost all states. All that most states ask is that the lights are working at the time of registration and very few states check the quality of construction. There is currently no federal law or national agency requiring amusement park operators and hayride operators in every state to fill out accident reports. There are no general uniform reporting requirements on a national level for amusements or hayride injuries and fatalities. Since the hayride and quasi-amusement industry is highly unregulated, there is no uniform system for reporting injuries. this presents a serious danger to the consumer particularly when these rides carry the most precious of cargo: our children.
Unfortunately, as this tragic accident indicates, many hay rider operators cut corners on safety. In this instance, news sources indicate that the flatbed trailer was going down a “very steep” hill when the crash and hayride rollover occurred.
State Fire Marshals inspect and license mechanical amusement rides in Maine, but hayrides do not require such licensing. At the time of this writing, we have been informed that a State Fire Marshal is inspecting the trailer and interviewing farm employees and the injured riders. State Police are inspecting the SUV that was hauling the flatbed.
Examining the Jeep and Accident Circumstances
I would be curious to learn the Jeep manufacturer’s classifications and specifications for towing weights and payload. At first glance, it would appear that there is a possibility that the gross weight of the fully loaded flatbed combined with the weight of the flatbed exceeded proper and safe towing guidelines. A cursory review of published statistics and guidelines for a 1979 Jeep CJ5 indicated that it is an open off-road sport utility vehicle (SUV) with a soft top and curbside weight of 2,740 lbs. The vehicle has an estimated payload of 1010 lbs. and towing weight of 2,000 lbs. (braked). The gross vehicle weight rating is 750 lbs. All of these factors take into account that the vehicle is in proper operating condition with properly sized and inflated tires. Additionally, I would be curious to know whether or not there was a secondary or emergency backup braking system to the trailer being pulled and whether or not the trailer was dual wheeled or single wheeled. Research and studies have shown that dual wheels greatly reduce the possibility of a rollover in a sudden emergency or accident avoidance maneuver.
Unfortunately, the dangers present at hayrides are not limited to the actors dressed in ghoulish costumes attempting to scare the daylights out of riders. The real dangers lie in defectively manufactured, designed, and maintained trailers that are normally covered with hay and blankets and often overloaded as they carry unsuspecting hay riders.
What Legal Strategies are Hayride Operators Likely to Adopt?
In most instances after a hayride accident, the operators claim that the hayride is not a common carrier or an amusement attraction that may be subject to more strict regulation. The operator of a common carrier whose purpose is to transport individuals from place to place owes a duty to the highest standard of care. In at least one case that I am familiar with, amusement parks have been held to higher standards applicable to common carriers which exercise the utmost care and due diligence to its passengers. In Newbauer v. Disneyland, the court held that Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction was a common carrier when passengers on a boat in the attraction were injured after a collision with another boat. ASTM designation F47-06 defines an amusement ride or amusement device as a device or combination of devices or elements that carry, convey, or direct a person (or persons) over or through a fixture restricted course within a defined area for the primary purpose of amusement or entertainment.
What we know so far is that the State of Maine does not regulate hayrides. In short order, it is most likely that insurance carriers and operators of the hayride will argue that the hayride is not a common carrier, and therefore not obligated to offer its passengers the highest standard of care but rather a lower standard of ordinary care. While the duty of one who operates a place of entertainment or amusement is higher than that of the owner of private property, generally the rules applicable to governing the relationship of the possessor of land and a guest or business invitee generally govern the rights, duties, obligations, and liabilities of the owner of a place of amusement.
In almost all amusement park accident and hayride accident cases, the defendant attempts to raise the doctrine known as assumption of the risk as a bar to victims negligence claims and one would counter argue that victims cannot fully understand or assume a risk that they are not aware of.
In the instant case, one might confidently assume that an SUV and its attached flatbed careening down a steep hill out of control, jackknifed, and rolling over is not in the inherent risk of a hayride barring any negligence claim.
We urge that an independent investigation is promptly commenced and that the evidence be properly preserved and not expoliated.
Our thoughts and prayers are extended to the victims and their families.