Why Delaware canceled pumpkin chucking festival

Organizers cancelled Delaware's Punkin Chunkin World Championships a month out because they could not find good insurance. The event had already been moved because of a lawsuit two years ago.

Culpeper Star-Exponent/Vincent Vala/AP
Visitors at View Hill Farm watch as a pumpkin trailed by a blast of smoke shoots from a canon during a test run at the 18th annual World Championship Punkinchunkin competition in Delaware in 2003.

Organizers in Delaware have given up and cancelled a community pumpkin-launching competition Thursday, but not because of volunteer recruitment problems, inclement weather, or even decline in interest. The World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition was squashed because of the difficulty of obtaining insurance after an accident at the 2011 event resulted in a lawsuit.

The first Punkin Chunkin championship was held in 1986, when "with the throw of a hat, the challenge to compete in how far one could hurl an intact pumpkin came into being," and several events like it now occur annually, according to the group's Facebook page. Despite the simple origins of the fall festival, World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association events attracted thousands and provided scholarships and money for community organizations. 

A Punkin Chunkin volunteer was injured in an ATV accident during the 2011 event and brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit in 2013. The suit was eventually settled out of court, and the event's host – a farmer in Bridgeville, Del. – said the risk of hosting again was too high. The last competition was held in 2013, as organizers cancelled 2014's event as well.

"Despite the best efforts of our Board throughout an exhaustive, nation-wide search, we have been unable to locate a willing insurer to adequately protect our host venue, our organization, our fans, and our spectators," the board wrote on the Facebook page.

The legal climate in Delaware could mean the state has lost the event for good, World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association President Ricky Nietubicz told Delaware Online.

"There are more favorable regulatory environments elsewhere," he told Delaware Online. "At this point, we're really exploring all options."

Lawmakers thought they could solve the problem last year. Delaware Sen. Britan Pettyjohn (R) sponsored a bill to set a million-dollar maximum on damages levied against non-profits like Chunkin Punkin, but the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association testified against it and Democratic leaders defeated the bill, WBOC-TV reported. 

Mr. Pettyjohn said he would try again next year, noting that Punkin Chunkin has had an estimated $15 million economic impact and contributed $100,000 to charities and $50,000 in scholarships, according to WBOC-TV. 

Insurance was the last real obstacle to the event, which would have occurred during the first weekend of November at Dover International Speedway, Mr. Nietubicz says in an interview. 

"We did not anticipate any other challenges to putting on the event," adds Mr. Nietubicz.

Some fans who found the cause of cancellation particularly disheartening blamed the settled lawsuit. One commenter wrote, "I sure hope the one person who didn't want to accept responsibility for his actions and all those greedy lawyers are proud of themselves! This is what happens when you live in lawsuit-happy society!"

Insurers offered various policies, but they did not offer the legal protection that a pumpkin-launching event  in Delaware needs, sometimes excluding key elements, Neitubicz says. 

"With about a month to go, I think they ultimately realized they weren’t going to have any luck," Gary Camp from the Dover International Speedway told Delaware Online, saying the speedway did not want to go any further without proof of insurance. 

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