As we often discuss on this blog parents, grandparents, and other caregivers rely on regulators to catch safety problems on rides and attractions at fairs, carnivals, amusement parks, and theme parks before the safety risk turns into injuries or deaths. But even when regulators are not authorized to actually inspect rides in a particular state, at minimum, data regarding safety performance for different operators, facilities, or events can help caregivers and thrill-seekers make informed safety decisions. But, when there are a lack of safety inspections and a dearth of safety data, consumers are prevented from making meaningful decisions that could prevent a life-altering injury or wrongful death.
At The Reiff Law Firm we are pleased to see that the Maine legislature has recognized that there is a problem regarding its regulation of hayrides and other attractions. However, Maine’s Governor, Paul LePage, had vetoed the legislation citing more pressing problems in the state. Thankfully, it appears that the Maine legislature understands the danger presented by this situation and has overridden the governor’s veto.
Recalling the Events that Caused the 2014 Hayride Accident & Fatalities
Every fall the changing of the color of the leaves signifies the beginning of prime season for farms and other agritainment businesses. These businesses typically offer a wide-range of attractions including hayrides, hay or corn mazes, apple picking, and smaller rides and attractions. In fact, many farms have come to rely on the revenue produced by events and attractions like these. However, while it is important that farms have ample opportunity to market their products and services, profits should never be put before protecting children, teenagers, and families from known safety risks and other dangers.
The deadly hayride accident occurred back in October of 2014 on a night where more than 500 came to a Maine farm to participate in fall attractions. One of the attractions – and the source of the deadly accident – was a haunted hayride offered by the farm.
On the hayride, roughly 24 people cram into a trailer lined with bales of hay and towed by a tractor or another vehicle. In this instance, the towing vehicle was a 1979 Jeep CJ5. During the ride guests are frightened by actors in costumes and thrilled the driver’s propensity to accelerate suddenly and further startle riders. As such, the ride starts out with the Jeep pulling away from the barn ever-so-slowly. As the Jeep and trailer moves away from the barn, the driver will then speed up and slow down rapidly.
Unfortunately, the driver’s desire to add an extra thrill to the ride exacerbated known safety problems with the Jeep CJ5. That is, even under good conditions the Jeep presents a higher rollover risk for vehicles of its type and class. Furthermore older Jeeps are known to develop problems with the steering shaft coupler, Pittman arm, body locking hubs, and power steering box that can further increase the risk of a rollover crash. This combined with the likelihood that the vehicle was significantly overloaded beyond its towing capacity and not equipped with or secondary brakes all combined to cause this fatal accident.
At the time of the accident Jeffrey Reiff was interviewed by NBC regarding the reasons behind the accident. Jeff explained:
This case has all the markings of a perfect storm. We have a farm with 500 people visiting, it’s a dark night, there’s a lot of noise, there’s people dressed in costumes, there’s a narrator as I understand on the hay ride. You’ve got what seems to be a grossly undersized vehicle pulling a heavy trailer loaded with hay –bales of hay, blankets, twenty-four people, and people are probably screaming and excited, and it says from the stories that I’ve read, [the driver] takes a couple of jerks for excitement and then accelerates over the hill.
Now, common sense tells you that if you’ve got a light vehicle carrying a heavy trailer that is not double-wheeled, which we know adds stability factor, there’s not a secondary set of brakes, there’s no back-up or safety system, and you have the makings of an accident.
If I were the prosecutor I would be hard-pressed not to open a criminal investigation. For the reason that, at first glance, it appears to me that the behavior here was egregious and reckless. Just from looking at it I would want to know, was [the trailer] overloaded, when was the last time they inspected the hitch, were the proper tires on this vehicle because, you know what, right now there’s a family mourning the loss of a 17-year-old girl her classmates and friends are mourning her loss and this accident could have easily been prevented.
The hayride accident injured 22 and took the life of one teenager. After the accident details emerged that the company operating the hayride had been cited for more than 200 safety violations. The matter is currently before a grand jury to determine whether criminal charges should be filed. For further information regarding the causes and factors that contributed to the hayride tragedy, please see our original assessment of the hayride crash.
Why Wasn’t the Hayride Subject to Regulation?
The hayride was not subject to legislation because of a gap in Maine’s amusement regulatory regime. While the regulation of amusements and rides had long been handled by Maine’s State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Office’s authority to continue to do so was mistakenly revoked in a previous legislative session. Furthermore, the limited inspection of the vehicle’s brakes that can apply to farm vehicles, did not apply in this case. Farm vehicles that are only driven on private property do not have to be inspected – only vehicles that will be driven on public roads no more than 20 miles from the farm’s main entrance are subject to the regulatory requirement.
In Maine there are more than 100 farms, facilities, and operators offering hayrides or other agritainment attractions. As we have reported previously, the CPSC has stated that hayride incidents have soared in recent years. However, prior to action by the Maine legislature, it appeared that the potential risks presented by some of these facilities might be allowed to continue unaddressed for another season. However, despite a veto by the governor, it appears that Maine will look into correcting its known gaps in hayride regulation.
What Would the New Safety Regulation Cover?
The bill that is slated to investigate the gaps in Maines amusement regulation is known as LD1057 or An Act To Increase the Safety of Amusement Rides. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Robert Nutting who in response to the bill’s introduction and the fatal hayride accident was quoted by the Bangor Daily News stating that the bill would provide ample opportunity for stakeholders and business operators to come to an agreement. He stated, “This [bill] gives all the interested parties a chance to work on it between now and next winter and during which time we will have another hayride season.”
Changes the bill was originally slated to bring included:
- Reinstatement of the State Fire Marshall’s authority to inspect hayrides and other amusement rides.
- Define the term amusement ride more expansively so as to bring waterslides, bungee jumping operations, and obstacle courses under the regulatory regime.
- Requirement for operators to obtain licensure from the state and to provide information about the business venture including a certification of liability insurance.
- Authorizes the Commissioner of Public Safety to work with interested parties, officials, stakeholders, and others to further develop the rules and regulations that will implement the law.
Problems originally identified with the law included a lack of expertise regarding tractors and hayrides in the Fire Marshall’s office. Also, there is a problem with identifying all of the operators in the state.
Governor’s Veto of Safety Legislation Overturned
However it was not the potential problems that had previously been identified that motivated the governor’s veto. The governor stated that his reasons behind the veto was:
I have tried to explain to members of the Legislature that resolves that mandate (the Department of Public Safety) complete reports often harm the public safety of the state of Maine. If this bill becomes law, resources that could be used to address the most pressing public safety concerns facing our state will instead be used to address a public safety concern that is plainly not as serious as the use of illegal drugs destroying the lives of thousands of Maine citizens.”
While the scourge of illegal and addictive drugs is undoubtedly a serious problem the state must address, the failure to address other known dangerous whatsoever seems unnecessarily focused on a single issue and without the perspective needed to address the many problems faced by citizens of a state. Thankfully, the House voted 146-0 to overturn by Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s veto, while the Senate voted 29-6 to override the veto.
The task force is now expected to study the issue. Unfortunately crafting solutions to multi-faceted issues takes time and the regulatory overhaul will not be completed in time for the 2015 hayride season. In fact, the task force charged with implementing this law are not expected to report back to the legislature until February 2016.
While changes at the government level will take some time, consumers and businesses may change their behavior following last year’s deadly accident. Consumers will hopefully be more willing to assess the safety of an operation themselves and not simply assume that everything will work out without issue. Consumers will hopefully search for reports of incidents at farms and other agritainment businesses, however they are only likely to find major accidents that attracted news coverage due to a lack of consistent accident reporting requirements. However consumers should always, to the best of their ability, use common sense to assess the safety of an attraction. Operators that have an “anything goes” attitude, equipment or machinery is repurposed or jerry-rigged, or when vehicles are overloaded all point to significant potential safety problems.
On the operator side, hopefully last year’s accident, the injuries and death caused, and the potential for criminal prosecution has served as a wake-up call for operators of hayrides and similar attractions. Perhaps operators will compete not only in terms of prices, but also in terms of safety. However this hope may be overly optimistic.
Injured at a Fair, Carnival, or Farm?
The hayride and amusement park injury attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm are dedicated to fighting for individuals seriously injured due to negligence, recklessness, or carelessness. Injured people and their families should not be forced to subsidize behavior that disregards the value of human life. If you have been hurt at a farm, fair, carnival, or other location where rides and amusement were present, contact our firm for a free legal consultation by calling (215) 246-9000.