While trying to reorganize some old files, I came across notes I’d taken at a seminar on the legal liabilities associated with hunting accidents. The presenter was an experienced trial attorney, and the legal opinions he offered were based on extensive research. Even so, he noted that, ultimately, judges, juries and appellate courts are the sole “authorities” on what any given statute means at any given time.
I’ll begin with some good news for landowners. Under current Missouri law and courtroom practice, the chances a landowner will be held liable for injuries suffered by trespassers are “very remote” and almost certainly would have to include a scenario in which the landowner deliberately created a situation with the intent to do bodily harm. Furthermore, a landowner’s potential liability for hunters he allows onto his property–“invitees” in legal jargon–is also virtually nil. On the other hand, landowners who grant access rights in exchange for monetary compensation create a “licensee” or “lessee” arrangement, which can elevate the landowner’s responsibility for his paying guests’ actions.
The seminar’s main topic was the potential criminal and civil liability surrounding hunting accidents. Primarily due to mandatory hunter education programs, firearms accident rates per number of participants are in a continuing 30-year decline. In fact, there are now fewer than 900 weapons-related hunting accidents per year in all of North America (Canada, the United States and Mexico.)
The problem is that people who are interesting in learning about and then practicing hunting safety don’t have accidents. The people whose attention we need to get are those who believe filling their own tags is more important than someone else’s life. Fortunately, there are legal means available in both criminal and civil court to do exactly that.
I know I’m about to offend a few people–not that I care all that much–but I’m especially eager to see the court system get involved whenever the victim was “mistaken for game.” Just what gets my dander so aroused by “mistaken for game” accidents? I’m glad you asked. The shooter in this type of accident has not only made a deliberate choice to fire his weapon, but he has also hit his chosen target. What makes this scenario especially obscene is that the shooter did this without identifying his target to an absolute certainty. In plain English, this means the shooter–I refuse to call him a hunter–has too little regard for the animal he’s pursuing to make sure his shot will result in a humane kill, and he has no regard at all for the fact that his target may be a human being.
In Missouri, what I just described is defined as “wanton, gross or extreme negligence” and is grounds for the filing of criminal charges for manslaughter or assault, depending on whether the victim lives or dies. Conviction will result in prison time in the case of manslaughter and may put the miscreant behind bars in the case of assault. In addition, the court may require payment of restitution to the victim.
A less restrictive definition of negligence is required for shooting victims to bring suit in civil court. Going this route takes my definition of justice out of the equation, but it may have financial benefits for the plaintiff. Civil juries are allowed to take a much more generous attitude toward actual damages than is a criminal court judge. In addition, a civil jury can assess punitive damages.
In one such case used as an example in the seminar, a bowhunter climbed out of his stand
at sunset, walked to the edge of the woods and bent down to light a cigarette. He was then shot in the back by another bowhunter. This victim won a “substantial” award. In that after a lifetime in the woods, I’ve yet to see a deer light a cigarette, he’d have gotten even more if I’d been on the jury.
Just in case there’s somebody out there who still isn’t convinced that using common sense is important, here are a couple of tidbits to ponder. If you’re convicted of a crime involving a hunting accident or are found liable for one in civil court, it’s possible–and I stress the word possible–that your home owner’s liability insurance will pay all or part of the victim’s actual damages. However, your insurance agent won’t do your jail time, and there is no insurance coverage for punitive damages. Think about that the next time you see some poorly defined “shape” moving through the woods.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]