Trial lawyer suggests fatal hayride wagon too heavy

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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.

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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.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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