LEWISTON — In the wake of a hayride accident Saturday that claimed the life of 17-year-old Cassidy Charette of Oakland, state lawmakers were hesitant to say whether Maine's growing farm entertainment industry should be better regulated when it comes to transporting people on trailers or wagons.
Another 22 passengers suffered injuries, many serious, in Saturday's accident during the The Gauntlet hayride at Harvest Hill Farms on Route 26 in Mechanic Falls.
But, unfortunately, hayride accidents are not uncommon in the U.S., according to Ron Melancon, the founder of the Virginia-based website dangeroustrailers.org.
Melancon said he was deeply saddened by Charette's death and angered, too, because for 15 years he's been urging state and federal lawmakers to do something about trailer safety.
"If a small charter jet crashed and the pilot was killed and this many people were injured, it would be national news and the NTSB would be investigating," Melancon said. "I see no difference. Why is this kind of accident not investigated to the same rigor as if it were a tour bus or a small charter jet?"
Unlike amusement park or carnival rides,which are inspected and licensed by the state Fire Marshal's Office, hayrides are unregulated in Maine and remain largely unregulated in the United States.
Since the beginning of September three people, including Charette, have been killed and several seriously injured in hayride accidents in Maine, Missouri, Idaho and Minnesota. Dozens were also injured in unrelated hayride accidents across the United States in 2013, 2012 and 2011.
Melancon tracks accidents involving people being towed on trailers or wagons, including at parades and hayrides. He said that as many as 400 people are injured and as many as 40 are killed each October on hayrides.
Melancon has lobbied National Transportation Safety Board officials and members of Congress to set federal standards, but said he's had little effect getting politicians to take action.
On Monday, Melancon also started a new Facebook group aimed at getting Maine to pass a law in Charette's name and aimed at ensuring hayrides are safe in the Pine Tree State.
"I want Maine to be the first state to address this problem and fix it," Melancon said. "I want her memory to go nationwide and to prevent this type of accident from killing another child or adult in this country."
He said Maine politicians should not be allowed to ignore the tragic facts surrounding hayride safety, and Charette's death should prompt action without delay.
He said new federal law requiring backup cameras for all automobiles sold in the United States by 2018 was prompted by 50 deaths a year, and the death toll from malfunctioning wagon and trailer rides is far higher.
But instead of regulating safety in the agritourism business in Maine, lawmakers in 2012 passed legislation actually limiting a farmer's liability. The law states participants in farm-related events assume there are "inherent risks" and they accept the possibility they may be injured or killed.
The law, similar to one that protects Maine's ski areas, doesn't protect a farm operator if they "commit an act or omission that constitutes negligence or reckless disregard for the safety of others ...."
The law also requires that participants in farm-related tourism or entertainment venues be duly warned of the risks they are assuming. That warning must be in the form of a sign placed in a prominent location or farm operators must get a signed consent form from participants.
The warning on the sign must be spelled out in black letters at least 1 inch high and must also include the following information:
"Warning: Under Maine law, there is no liability for injury to a participant in an agritourism activity conducted at this agritourism location if such injury results from the inherent risks of the agritourism activity. Inherent risks of agritourism activities include, among others, risks of injury inherent to land, equipment and animals, as well as the potential for injury if you act in a negligent manner. You are assuming the risk of participating in this agritourism activity."
The bill creating the law was sponsored by state Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, along with eight other Republicans and one Democratic co-sponsor.
The bill, which received broad bipartisan support, was signed into law by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
On Monday, a message left for Libby was not returned. Also co-sponsoring the legislation was District 17 Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, who represents Mechanic Falls. A call to Mason on Monday was not returned.
Other lawmakers, including those who represent Oakland, Charette's hometown, said it is too early to say whether Maine should do a better job at regulating hayride safety.
"The community is really grieving right now, as is the Charette family," state Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, said. "We just have to pull together as a community at this point. As to a discussion around any policy changes, that will have to wait until some time has passed and pending a formal and official investigation."
Beck said at this point he and others were, "simply sending prayers to the family."
State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he too believed any policy discussion at this point would be premature. He said the focus is to allow Charette's family and the community time to grieve before delving too far into any policy debates the tragedy may prompt.
But Melancon urged swift action Monday, saying lives are at stake. He also said policymakers will try to say the tragedy is an isolated incident or a "freak accident," but the facts from around the country show otherwise.
"Here's where the urgency is," Melancon said. "Today in your state, in my state, in some other state in the nation the same thing might happen again, and it's going to happen again. And on average, I'm sorry to say, before the end of this month there will be five more deaths that could be prevented if our governments would act."
LEWISTON — The Jeep pulling a hayride trailer that overturned, resulting in one death and many injuries Saturday, was ill-equipped to tow the trailer, according to a lawyer who specializes in cases involving hayride victims.
Jeffrey Reiff of Philadelphia wrote in a website posting that the 1979 Jeep CJ5 had a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds. Assuming that the hayride passengers, numbering as many as 30, weighed 100 pounds on average, the Jeep would have been pulling more than 3,000 pounds, including the weight of the trailer, Reiff wrote.
He added, "For a vehicle of such an advanced age, the types and frequency of maintenance performed is essential to know."
Cassidy Charette, 17, of Oakland died from injuries suffered in the crash; 22 others suffered injuries, including broken bones and head injuries. As of Thursday evening, at least one of the injured people was still in the hospital.
Connor Garland, 16, of Belgrade was released from Boston Children’s Hospital, the Morning Sentinel of Waterville reported Thursday night.
A Maine Medical Center spokeswoman said that hospital’s staff was still treating one victim who was in satisfactory condition.
Maine State Police continued Thursday to investigate the accident at Harvest Hill Farm in Mechanic Falls.
The Jeep that was towing the trailer had not yet been inspected by investigators, who continued to interview witnesses, Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said.
Police have not said whether the Jeep was modified to tow heavier loads or whether the trailer involved had its own braking system.
Reiff noted in his website posting that in 1981 the CJ5 was rated as having the highest rollover crash rate by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That rating was based on the vehicle's narrow wheel base and high center of gravity.
In a phone conversation Thursday, Reiff said that while he had no reason to believe Maine State Police would not do a thorough investigation, he thought it would be best to also have an independent investigation of the accident.
"I would be willing to bet, based on my experience and from what I've read, that the towing capacity was overloaded and it was exceeded," Reiff said. "And that's assuming everything is in perfect shape, and I don't know what the shape of that vehicle was."
Reiff said he has been involved in litigating hayride and other amusement ride accidents for more than 30 years, but he's not looking to profit from this tragedy.
He said he wants to see the state and federal governments do something about a dangerous situation that they, so far, have chosen to ignore.
"Is the fed doing something about this?" Reiff asked. "No. Is your state Legislature doing something about it? No. So basically, until the regulatory loopholes are closed, it's up to guys like me and other consumer advocates out there to try and make a difference."
Reiff said civil suits involving hayride accidents often are settled out of court by insurance companies and lawyers, moving the danger from the public eye and beyond the attention of lawmakers.
Unlike most other amusement rides in the state, hayrides are unregulated, and those running them are not required to pass safety inspections or to hold licenses to transport people.
A state law passed in 2011 gave operators of agritourism some protection from lawsuits by granting them limited liability for injuries that arise from the inherent risks of visiting a farm with working machines or live animals. But the idea that anyone on a hayride assumes they are at risk of being injured in an accident seems to be a stretch, Reiff said.
"How can you assume a risk you are not aware of?" Reiff asked. "You can only assume a risk if you know all the dangers. But if there's a hidden danger, you're screwed."
Earlier this week another consumer advocate on trailer safety, Ron Melancon of Virginia, urged Maine lawmakers to regulate amusement-type hayrides at farms.
On Thursday Reiff echoed that sentiment.
"It would be nice to see the state Legislature doing something about that in your state and every state," Reiff said.
"There's probably not a day that goes by in the fall where there's not one (accident) happening," Reiff said. He said most are not as severe as what took place in Mechanic Falls. "You don't hear about most of them because there is no uniform reporting requirement."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
MECHANIC FALLS, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Following Saturday's hayride accident at Harvest Hill Farms that killed a 17-year-old high school student, some are taking a closer look at what kind of guidelines exist for hayrides and other farm attractions.
There are no federal regulations in place for operating hayrides. The state fire marshals office inspects and licenses mechanical amusement rides in Maine, but hayrides do not require licensing.
An amusement accident lawyer based out of Philadelphia, Jeffrey Reiff, said the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that the number of injuries on hayrides has risen dramatically, yet the regulation and inspection of hayrides is often left to the state or local municipalities.
"These hayrides are carrying the most precious cargo of them all - children. You would think there would be some regulation, or enforcement of regulation with teeth in it, and there's little, if any, so that's the big concern," said Reiff.
He said that the injuries that occur on hayrides are usually serious because of the number of people on the ride and the weight and size of the equipment. In the Mechanic Falls accident, a 1979 Jeep CJ5 was pulling the hay wagon. The jeep was unable to stop on a hill and the wagon overturned, causing the passenger to fall out of the trailer wagon. Reiff said that the 1979 Jeep weighs just under 3,000 pounds and payload capacity is 1,000 pounds. Towing capacity for the vehicle is 2,000 pounds with breaks, he said.
"Common sense tells you that if you've got a light vehicle pulling a heavily loaded trailer, that's not double wheeled and as we know, adds stability factor. There's not a secondary set of brakes. there's not a backup or safety system," said Reiff.
One person, 17-year-old Cassidy Charette, died in the Mechanic Falls accident and two remain in the hospital. Dozens were injured on the hayride, which owners said will not operate for the rest of the fall season. Reiff said it is likely there will be a criminal investigation.
"At first glance, it appears to me that the behavior is so egregious and reckless, just from looking at it. I want to know...was this thing overloaded? When was the last time they inspected the hitch? Were there proper tires on this vehicle? Because 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," he said.
Farmers aren't required to file accident reports on private property, so it's impossible for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to know how many injuries hayrides cause each year, according to Reiff.
SAUVIE ISLAND, Ore. – How safe are your children on a hayride at a local pumpkin patch? That question is on a lot of people's minds after two horrible accidents in other parts of the country over the weekend.
A teenage girl was killed and more than 20 others hurt in a hayride crash in Maine on Saturday. In Idaho, another teen was hit and killed by a bus in a corn maze on Friday.
KATU’S On Your Side Investigators looked into the safety of hayrides and discovered they are not regulated by the state or federal government.
At the Pumpkin Patch, one of several similar businesses on Sauvie Island, KATU noticed the trailers that carry people don't have railings. They also don't have safety chains on the hitches, which are required if you're towing a trailer on a public road.
Bob Egger, the owner of the Pumpkin Patch, says the chains aren't needed.
"If you have chains on 'em, people will trip over 'em,” Egger said.
Regarding the lack of railing, Egger said, “We've tried all types of stuff and the railing, we put railings on one year and kids climbed on 'em and we felt it was super unsafe."
On a public roadway, there are a number of regulations that are enforced by the state and federal government, but on a private farm, many of those rules don't apply.
When asked if his children are allowed on his hayrides, Egger said, "My son drives one. He's 16."
Egger says his farm is a safe place, and that he picks tractor drivers from employees who prove to be good at the job throughout the rest of the year.
Egger says since the Pumpkin Patch started offering hayrides in 1977, it’s served more than a million riders who haven't been hurt, though Egger admits one woman sued him four years ago. He says she jumped off a wagon and dropped the lawsuit after depositions. KATU spoke with the woman’s lawyer and he wouldn’t provide any more details.
At a state and national level there are no government statistics on the number of hayride accidents.
Ron Melancon, a consumer watchdog and administrator of the website, Hayridesafety.org, says based on news reports he monitors and information he’s obtained from attorneys, more than 30 people are killed and 500 injured a year in crashes involving trailers that are not properly regulated.
"We're not gonna risk our farm,” Egger said. “That's what we'd be doing to do something unsafe."
OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, does regulate worker safety on farms. But KATU sent them a list of seven popular local hayrides, and an OSHA spokeswoman said none of them have been inspected over the past five years. That list included hayrides at the Pumpkin Patch, Kruger’s Farm and Market and Bella Organic Farm on Sauvie Island, the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm in Woodburn, Liepold Farms in Boring and Olson Farms in Damascus.