30 October 2013

Autumn hayrides are fun but there's little safety oversight; 9 hurt in Milford

This story first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

It’s rider beware.

Hayrides are a staple of autumn fun in Michigan, but riding on a horse- or tractor-drawn wagon along rutted, two-track paths through fields and woods isn’t without potential hazards, as evidenced by Sunday’s accident at Camp Dearborn. In Michigan, there are no government oversight or safety requirements that hayride operators have to follow. A Grand Rapids Auto Accident Lawyer is closely watching this story.

Nine people were taken to the hospital after a hay wagon, transporting 16 people with the Henry Ford Community College Support Staff Association, tipped at the City-of-Dearborn-owned camp in Milford Township late Sunday afternoon. Those injured complained of back and neck pain, bruises, scrapes and a possible broken jaw, according to Dearborn city spokeswoman Mary Laundroche.

The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which regulates ski lifts, amusement parks and carnivals, doesn’t oversee hayrides, nor does the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The cause of the Camp Dearborn accident is under investigation. Laundroche said that two more hayrides — the last ones scheduled for the season — continued as planned after Sunday’s mishap. Camp Dearborn hosts 50 rides in the fall, starting in September, and 60 in the summer with a total of approximately 2,500 participants. 

But some hayride mishaps have been much worse. A worker at a Dexter farm was paralyzed from the waist down after she thrown off the wagon she was driving and trampled by horses in 2011. The year before that, a teenager almost died when a hayride wagon ran him over. In 2005, a woman was killed after she fell off a hayride in Midland County. And about a decade earlier, a boy died when his head was crushed after he slipped and fell under a hayride tractor in St. Clair County. A Grand Rapids Car  Accident Lawyer believes these accidents are preventable.

In a written statement, the president of the Michigan Agri-Tourism Association, Charles Goodman, said, “Members are certainly keenly aware of the need for maximum safety in all of their operations.

“At the same time, agricultural experiences are not without the need for all participants to be carefully aware of their surroundings and accept the fact that there is no such thing as a totally risk-free experience, especially where there is a mix of machinery, people and learning or entertainment.”

Pure Michigan, the state’s tourism arm, isn’t concerned about repercussions.

“It’s unfortunate that this accident happened. I don’t think it’s a common occurrence,” said spokeswoman Michelle Begnoche. “We certainly encourage people to be safe. We encourage people to make sure their guests are safe, their employees are safe. We want it to be a great experience for everyone, to be a great Michigan experience. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to negatively impact tourism in the state.”

It can cost farms an additional $500-$3,000 annually for liability coverage that includes activities such as hayrides, according to Andrew Kling, a senior field farm underwriter for Michigan Farm Bureau Insurance. Requirements include railings on the sides of the wagon and steps up to the wagon.

“If you go to a water park, you know the risk at hand. ... If you drive down the road, there’s risks. I can’t tell you what things to look for. Take time and be careful. Keep your eyes on kids,” Kling explained. “Tipping over of a wagon, yeah, it’s happened over the years. Does it happen every year? No.”

Although other state agriculture extensions, such as those in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have created hayride safety guides, Michigan State University Extension has not done so.

“They’re there. They’re excited. They might not be used to being on a farm,” said MSU Extension educator Michelle Walk. “It’s not the same as going to Disney World where it’s built specifically for the consumers. It’s a farm, and they’re inviting the public onto the farm.”

Walk explained that farmers are told about liability and to make sure insurance covers them appropriately. Among the recommendations are training employees about safety, making sure the ground the wagons traverse is level, posting wagon rules for visitors to see, using wagons with sides, forbidding standing in wagons while they’re moving, assigning a staffer to load and unload passengers and, if possible, having a second employee in the wagon to watch guests.

Apple Charlie’s, an orchard in New Boston that offers seasonal hayrides, follows many of those guidelines.

“We stop (the wagon) if they start standing up and if there’s too many,” said employee Mary Grover, who added that her reaction to Sunday’s incident was, “Accidents happen. Oh jeez, we hope that doesn’t happen to us.”  A Grand Rapids Truck Accident Lawyer says this happens too often at this time of year.

Robert Szostak, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who specializes in amusement park accidents, said that because hayride proprietors have taken an admission fee, they owe visitors a higher duty of care.

“We often call this a disaster waiting to happen,” he continued. “When you have the perfect storm of improper loading, torque speeding, incline or decline, there will be (a) time when one of these fails like that. ...If you go down a black-diamond ski path, you expect certain risk. Here ,you expect to be protected, but you don’t see it as risky because there are hidden dangers.”

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