Senate Executive Committee squashes Pettyjohn’s ‘Punkin Chunkin’ bill

DOVER – A State Senator’s efforts to keep one of Delaware’s most popular events from leaving the First State may have been permanently squashed after the Senate Executive Committee last week voted not to advance a piece of legislation that has come to be known as the “Punkin Chunkin Bill.”

“Today was a devastating blow,” said Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, the bill’s sponsor.  “I’m disappointed the Executive Committee didn’t see fit to release this bill, and I’m even more disappointed it failed on a party line vote.”

TEASER CHUNK

All four Democrats on the committee voted against the measure.

Over the years, Punkin Chunkin has become a cultural phenomenon and a huge economic boost to the farming communities in Sussex County that have hosted it. But ever since Dale Wheatley, who hosted the event on his Bridgeville farm from 2007 to 2013, was sued by an injured volunteer in 2013, it has been feared that the event would leave the state.

Because Delaware currently does not have a liability cap, organizers and landowners simply have too much to lose in the event of an unforeseen accident.

Sen. Pettyjohn’s proposed legislation would have placed a $1,000,000 liability cap on non-economic damages awarded for personal injury or wrongful death at special events. Similar to Maryland law, it did not limit punitive damages or economic damages like lost wages and medical bills.

After years of attracting tens of thousands of visitors every fall from around the country – and even the world – Punkin Chunkin was canceled in 2014. The event is scheduled to return Oct. 24-26 at Dover International Speedway, but now there are no guarantees after that.

“It’s a sad day,” Sen. Pettyjohn said. “We’re talking about an event that had a $15,000,000 economic impact on Delaware. We’re talking about an organization that gave about $100,000 to charities in Delaware and $50,000 in scholarships to local schoolchildren. This is an organization that has done nothing but good for Delaware and we’re kicking them out of the state.”

It’s the second time in as many years Sen. Pettyjohn’s bill has fallen short. Each time the measure was opposed by the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association, which was represented at Wednesday’s hearing.

Sen. Pettyjohn said the Trial Lawyers Association has never shown any interest in working with him to find a compromise that might have secured Punkin Chunkin’s future in Delaware.

“There were several occasions where I asked to speak with somebody from the Trial Lawyers Association regarding the bill and their concerns and all I got was silence from them,” he said. “They painted several gloom and doom scenarios, none of which are reasonable. We were just trying to make it so people in our state could continue to host these events and be able to do so while protecting their assets in the event of a catastrophic accident.”

The legislation would have applied to all special events, not just Punkin Chunkin. It defined special events as being hosted by non-profit organizations not more than once per calendar year and open to the general public. Other such events in Delaware include the Italian and Greek Festivals in Wilmington, the Apple-Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville, the Delaware State Fair in Harrington, the Riverwalk Festival in Milford, the Nanticoke Indian Powwow in Millsboro, and countless 4th of July and New Year’s events.

The Sussex County Post delivers news from Georgetown and southern Delaware. Follow @SussexPost on Twitter.

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