I'm writing concerning the recent introduction of Pennsylvania House Bill 1125, designed to hold all Pennsylvania landowners immune from civil liability for shooting injuries or deaths caused at the hands of invited hunters on their properties. First, a little background.
Six years ago, in May of 2007, the Pennsylvania General Assembly unanimously and inexplicably passed House Bill 13, which was signed into law by the governor. H.B. 13 specifically granted blanket civil impunity to landowners if invited hunters on their property happened to injure or kill the next door neighbor, even when through acts of negligence or reckless indifference. This legislation was the direct result of a well-publicized and near-fatal shooting in the Lehigh Valley in 2005, in which a pregnant woman – sitting behind the wheel of her car in her own driveway – was shot in the head by a reckless deer hunter on a nearby property. Since the shooter didn't own the property he was on, but had been invited to hunt there by the property owner, the victim sued the landowner for his culpability for her injuries and prevailed. The lawsuit upset the apple cart and created a statewide firestorm of concern among farmers and others over the issue of legal liability when allowing access to private lands for hunting. Deep-pocketed and powerful special interest groups, specifically the Game Commission and the Farm Bureau, lobbied tirelessly and ultimately got the General Assembly to pass H.B. 13 without any floor debate or public fore-knowledge. The general public knew nothing of the pending legislation and no one had a chance to argue against it before the vote. Incredibly, H.B. 13 did not receive a single "no" vote. There wasn't a single member of the General Assembly who thought it might be a really bad idea to give carte blanche legal immunity to property owners when invited hunters on their lands injured or killed people on neighboring properties.
Apparently not satisfied with H.B. 13, Assemblymen Neal Goodman and Doyle Heffley have corroborated on proposed legislation which will once again relieve a careless property owner of any legal liability whatsoever when an invited hunter's reckless or negligent act results in injury or death to persons on other properties. Reps. Goodman and Heffley make no attempt to hide the fact they've been lobbied heavily by the Farm Bureau to create this bill. But not mentioned is the fact this isn't so much about good-hearted property owners opening up their lands for hunting, as it is farmers making "dollars & cents" business decisions about the control of crop-destroying wildlife. The fact the Farm Bureau is so heavily involved is prima facie evidence this is more about the business of farming than the propagation of a time honored sport.
No one wants to see a farmer lose crops and money to unchecked wildlife. And I hope we never see the day when one of our rights and national heritage, sport hunting, becomes just another thing of the past. On the other hand, few things are as potentially dangerous as a .30 cal. center-fire deer rifle in the hands of a fool – or the foolish farmer who invites such a person to hunt his land as a means of pest control, and thus creates a hazardous environment for his neighbors. We need look no further than the Lehigh Valley shooting incident for proof of that. H.B. 1125 flies in the face of common sense in light of today's national debate over guns and gun safety. Why in the world would we make it easier for people to be laissez-faire towards hunting safety, rather than the opposite? The short answer, in terms of H.B. 1125, is once again money. Nevertheless, landowners and farmers who open their properties to hunting – for whatever reasons – must make every effort humanly possible to ensure the safety of those on surrounding properties. And they must remain legally liable when they fail to exercise their moral duty. To suggest otherwise is preposterous, and the General Assembly has no business lowering the bar to that end.
L. Ernie Foucault