The world-renowned Punkin Chunkin event, held in Sussex County since its 1986 founding, is searching for a new home.

The world-renowned Punkin Chunkin event, held in Sussex County since its 1986 founding, is searching for a new home.

Dale Wheatley, owner of Wheatley Farms in Bridgeville, recently informed event organizers that, due to liability concerns stemming from a pending lawsuit, he would no longer host Punkin Chunkin.

“I can’t afford to lose everything I’ve got,” Wheatley said. “It’s a shame I can’t do something about it; but I can’t stand the risk.”

Wheatley’s concerns are in direct response to a lawsuit filed in New Castle County Superior Court on Oct. 23, 2013 by Daniel Fair, of Lewes, a former volunteer who’s been left paralyzed by an all-terrain vehicle accident that occurred during Punkin Chunkin 2011. Fair has named the Punkin Chunkin Association and Wheatley Farms in the suit and is seeking more than $4.5 million.

Searching for protection

Negotiations between Wheatley Farms and the Punkin Chunkin Association have been ongoing since the lawsuit was filed. In an effort to provide protection to Wheatley Farms and the hosts of other large events in Delaware, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown) drafted legislation in December modeled after Maryland law that would limit non-economic damages for personal injury or wrongful death at special events to $710,000.

However that bill hit a roadblock when it not only failed to receive enough support to be introduced during this legislative session, but also saw immense pushback from the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association, whose representatives called Pettyjohn’s bill “ineffective and unnecessary.”

“There are other options that could be used rather than putting a cap on what someone could collect if they’re injured,” said Larry Kimmel, president of the DTLA. “One of the options is an indemnification clause so the landowner would be indemnified from any damages.”

Kimmel said the hold-harmless clause would be included in the contract between Wheatley Farms and the Punkin Chunkin Association.

However, Wheatley said his attorney did not feel the clause was adequate protection and advised him to close his doors to the popular event.

Exploring several options

John Huber, president of the Punkin Chunkin Association, said his organization has been exploring host sites in Delaware and Maryland.

One possibility, Huber said, is the Dover International Speedway, which hosts several large events, including the Firefly Music Festival.

“The [speedway’s] leadership team has been very helpful in evaluating this location for use and has offered it to us provided it meets our needs and both parties can meet on terms and conditions,” he said. “This is by no means the approved 2014 site for the event and is simply one of the options available today.”

Before a decision can be made, the Punkin Chunkin Association has to make sure the event will fit on the speedway’s property. According to Wheatley, Punkin Chunkin utilized between 300 and 400 acres of his 1,300-acre farm. Michael Tatoian, the speedway’s chief operating officer, said while there are roughly 400 acres available for use on the property, its layout may not work for Punkin Chunkin.

“The footprint for Firefly is significantly different than the footprint for Punkin Chunkin,” Tatoian said, pointing to the wooded areas on the property. “I’ve never been to Wheatley Farms but I’m assuming it’s a big rolling field and we don’t have that here.”

However, Tatoian said the speedway is willing to do anything in its power to keep Punkin Chunkin in the First State.

“The state and everybody in it should help find a way to keep Punkin Chunkin in Delaware, whether it’s on our property or someone else’s property,” he said. “It’s such an iconic, distinctly Delaware event and I think everyone would hate to see it leave.”

Huber has said the organization is considering a location on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; but he’s declined to name the spot. He said there are various options under consideration and, once his group finds the right place, the Punkin Chunkin Association board will vote on whether to make the move.

If the group doesn’t find a new home soon, there’s a possibility Punkin Chunkin will not be held this year as scheduled, from Oct. 24-26.

“If the right piece of property lands in our lap and if it makes sense for us to go to that location, we’re going to do that,” Huber said. “The good news is between all the media and state interest in keeping Punkin Chunkin alive, I feel very strongly that something will come to fruition.”

Pettyjohn said he’s hoping the group will find another spot in Sussex County.

“This event has been an economic boon to the Bridgeville area for the past several years and it will be missed,” he said. “It is my goal to assist in keeping this event in Sussex County and I’m confident that with the multitude of large parcels and farmland that we have in Sussex that a suitable location can be found to host this event.”