Unfortunately, we read about it happening most every fall. You know what I mean…the news story that hits the wire describing a hunter’s errant bullet harming or perhaps killing some innocent person quite some distance away from the woods. Those type of incidents are truly horrendous, and certainly not something any of us like to hear about—whether hunter or non-hunter alike. Yet, to some extent, in life there’s no getting away from the fact that accidents will occur. To believe otherwise is simply foolhardy given the number of hunters that take to the woods each fall.
Case in point happened last fall out in Pennsylvania. Craig Wetzel was deer hunting on a farm when he shot at a deer. The projectile apparently missed the deer and instead found an 18–year old pregnant woman sitting in a car in her driveway 1/2 mile away from where the shot took place. The bullet grazed the young woman’s head fracturing her skull…but fortunately not killing her. Today, the young victim is physically on the mend.
But this story doesn’t quite end there. Nope, the victim sued the shooter and just a few weeks ago was awarded what will likely end up being a substantial negligence award. You might say…well, that seems fair. And thus far I would tend to agree. But in that Pennsylvania courtroom the jury went a step further and found that the landowner who allowed the hunting to take place to be partly at fault. In this case of contributory negligence the hunter was found to be 90% liable and the landowner, who was not involved in the hunting act, was found to be the final 10% at fault.
Oh, but it grows much worse than that. In Pennsylvania the next phase of the trial will be another jury who will determine what type of damages the victim should receive. Experts who have followed this case closely have speculated something that is almost unimaginable that might eventually happen. Allegedly Mr. Wetzel is mostly judgment proof meaning that even if money was awarded you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip. If Wetzel doesn’t have the money to cover the potential jury award…then the landowner who is likely more flush with assets could possibly bear 100% of this final jury award. Under Pennsylvania law—which does not necessarily mean the facts of this case could be construed in this very same manner in your particular state—there is a real possibility the landowner who innocently opened his land to allow hunting could pay a huge penalty for granting that permission.
One doesn’t have to use much imagination to speculate how this news is reverberating throughout regions in Pennsylvania.
“We’re watching it very closely,” said game commission press secretary Jerry Feaser. “But, it’s not just hunting that is at risk here. It is all forms of outdoor recreation. You have the potential for landowners overreacting and closing land to all forms of outdoor recreation.”
Hunters across the country have reason to take notice of this particular court case. Even though the legal precedent it sets will probably not have a real impact in the areas where you likely hunt (unless you live in Pennsylvania), it’s news like this that makes landowners across the country quite nervous. And rightly so. The argument used to even convince the jury that the landowner was culpable could scare even a sensible, realistic-thinking landowner into a mode of acting overly cautious.
The Plaintiffs’ Attorney argued that the landowner “disregarded his neighbors’ safety by letting people hunt on his property.”
Apparently the landowner’s neighbors had posted their land and not allowed hunting. Yet when the “negligent” landowner did not follow suit he helped to create the unfortunate situation by virtue of letting someone go hunting on his land.
I believe that what this shows is yet another form of attack on our sportsman’s rights. Granted, the victim is probably due her compensation in this case…but let’s be realistic, the real culprit who caused the accident was not the landowner. The only real reason the landowner was even brought into the case as a defendant was because when you sue someone you must go where the money is. I find it damn hard to believe that the plaintiffs’ attorneys were not fully aware of the shooter’s lack of financial wherewithall before filing the lawsuit. Yet they proceeded with the case because they knew the landowner, if found even the slightest bit negligent, could end up being the biggest loser.
As sportsmen we have every incentive to fight for stronger laws that protect and limit the type of liability a landowner could sustain. On the surface this case just doesn’t seem quite right—albeit I only have just a few of the facts. Still, when landowners become wary of who is on their land and refuse access just to minimize their risk…well then, we all lose.
As a landowner myself, I know I have a duty to carefully screen who I allow access to my land for hunting and fishing. Yet, once that threshold of comfort is reached, is it right that I or any other landowner for that matter, be held liable for some hunter’s actions? If the hunter was prone to act risky does the landowner have an absolute duty to determine that prior to granting permission?
Even worse yet…if the lands surrounding my farm restrict hunting should my farm be held to a higher standard because I opened it up to a bunch of recreationalists who happened to make a terrible mistake in judgment on some given day? Maybe there’s not a legal precedent being established here for most of us…but there certainly could be a landowner access precedent that takes root from these kind of news reports and fosters a backlash even beyond Pennsylvania against allowing hunting on one’s land.
Let’s face it, about a dozen years ago I stood outside my garage talking to another hunter during deer season and had a slug travel only 10 feet or so above our heads. We were lucky…but we were also quite mad about the incident. For the next hour I chased down the hunter in an adjacent woods and read them the “riot act” pertaining to their carelessness. Even had that slug caused property damage or some kind of injury to either of us…I don’t think the thought would have entered my mind to blame the landowner and try to hold him financially responsible. It was the hunter who was the actor in the event that occurred.
When the day finally comes that landowners are worried to allow hunting on their land it will be the death-grip to end our beloved sport. Sportsmen have a vested interest in seeing landowners in general treated respectfully and responsibly. Even if one landowner loses, as might be the case someday soon out in Pennsylvania, the impact might be felt far beyond that state’s borders as landowners grow more cautious and less permissive to the types of activities that take place on their lands. We simply cannot allow that to happen.
© 2006 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction Without Prior Permission.