Seattle Hayride Crash Injures Youth Group, Leaders
A bale of fun, or the last straw for church liability?

A church-sponsored hayride turned dangerous in July when a trailer carrying a Seattle area youth group flipped on a steep hill. According to a local news source, the trailer jackknifed on a packed gravel road, seriously injuring three adult volunteers. One lost a finger to amputation, while the other two suffered severe leg and ankle injuries. Several youths were also hospitalized. Investigators are studying the weight of people and objects placed on the trailer and the maintenance of the tractor and equipment.

At the moment, it is unclear if the tractor's driver (an adult church volunteer) will be cited.

It's more important than ever to use both common sense and educated legal knowledge to ensure the safety of church-sponsored events. As your congregation plans outdoor events throughout the fall season, do you know your legal responsibilities and liabilities? How can you keep participants–and your church–safe while enjoying traditional events and outings such as hayrides? Legal expert Richard Hammar gives a crash course in caution and savvy planning for hayrides as he fields this question in his Risk Management Handbook:

Many churches sponsor hayrides during the fall. The occasion may be a preschool class visiting a farm or a church youth group having a fellowship activity. What is intended as a fun activity can quickly turn into a tragedy. Hayride accidents can kill or seriously injure participants. The accidents tend to follow several patterns. Major concerns include falling off the wagon and sustaining injuries directly from the fall or being run over by the wagon or a vehicle that is following the wagon. Accidents also occur that crush participants who sit on the sides or back of the wagon with their legs hanging over the side. Several scenarios occur. Sometimes the wagon turns a corner next to a building (or some other physical object such as a bridge or a post) and the driver cuts the corner short. A person sitting with his or her legs dangling over the side can be crushed as the wagon slams into the side or corner of the building. Or the wagon may clear the building, but the rider is literally scraped off the wagon by the corner of the building. On other occasions two wagons may be hitched together. Individuals sitting on the back of the first wagon get pinched between the two wagons during a turn. Sometimes they fall off the first wagon and are run over by the second wagon. Wagon rides can be very bumpy. Riders can be bounced right out of the wagon. Often hayrides occur at night and visibility is poor. Usually there is a lot of noise and the driver may be completely unaware that an accident has occurred or that a problem may exist.

Many risk management experts do not recommend hayrides. Few companies specialize in providing hayrides. As a result, hayrides are often one-time events without careful planning or awareness of the safety issues. If a church or school sponsors a hayride the following points should be taken into consideration.

  1. Equipment. The tractor and the wagon should be in good repair. The wagon should be clean and equipped with side walls. Loose hay should not be used. Two wagons should not be hitched together. In addition, occasionally a wagon will become unhitched from the tractor during the hayride. It is best to use a chain as a secondary backup to connect the wagon to the tractor to avoid that problem.
  2. Example. Two dozen people were injured when they rolled down a hill when a wagon became unhitched during a hayride. One individual had medical bills exceeding


  3. Driver. The driver should be fully trained and experienced in driving the tractor while pulling a wagon. The driver should have a written checklist of all safety precautions and review them prior to beginning the hayride.
  4. Route. The route should be selected in advance and fully inspected for hazards. The driver should practice driving the route with the wagon prior to the hayride. Avoid the use of busy roads or roads that are too bumpy.
  5. Seating. No rider should be seated in such a manner than any part of the body can extend past the side, back, or front of the wagon. Riders should remain seated inside the wagon at all times. Arms, head, and legs should be kept inside the wagon. Trips sponsored for small children should only use wagons equipped with proper seat belts and safety equipment. Small children can bounce right out of a wagon.
  6. Trailing car. A car can follow the wagon at a safe distance with the headlights on the wagon. The car should have on its hazard lights. This car provides additional protection for the wagon from a rear collision, and serves as a form of back-up transportation if the tractor should have mechanical problems. The driver can also serve as a rear spotter to monitor the back of the wagon. The trailing driver must maintain a safe distance between the wagon at all times.
  7. Lighting and visibility. Lighting is a critical safety factor for hayrides that occur at night. The tractor pulling the wagon should have the headlights on, the warning hazard lights on, and lights on the back that illuminate the wagon. As noted above, the car following the wagon should have its headlights on the wagon. Supervisors riding on the wagon should have flashlights ready for use if needed.
  8. Supervision. An adequate number of supervisors should be present on the wagon. Riders should be given clear safety instructions prior to the hayride. Rowdy conduct should be corrected immediately.
  9. Speed. The speed should be kept low. This may pose a problem if a main road is used and cars are backing up behind the wagon, and then try to pass quickly. For this reason main roads should be avoided.
  10. Communication. The driver, a supervisor on the wagon, and the driver of the car following the wagon should use walkie-talkies to stay in communication with one another. The driver should have a spotter that can relay information as warranted, such as the need to stop. A cell phone should be available in case a need arises for emergency assistance.
  11. Emergency procedures. A first aid kit should be present in case an injury should occur. Supervisors should have an emergency plan in place with phone numbers that may be needed.

    -From Risk Management Handbook, pages 109-110

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This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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