Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Jury’s ruling may limit Pa. hunting

Landowner held partly responsible for
accident

By Ad Crable Contributing Writer

Did Lehigh County hunter Craig Wetzel fire the shots heard
around Pennsylvania in November 2004 when he aimed at, and missed,
a deer and fox?

One of those rifle shots apparently traveled a half-mile and
struck a pregnant teen-age girl in the head while she was sitting
in a car in the driveway.

The 18-year-old suffered brain injuries, but several months
later delivered a healthy baby.

Wetzel pleaded guilty to criminal charges of negligence and was
placed on six months’ probation. He also pleaded guilty to hunting
violations and lost his hunting license for five years.

But that was hardly the end of the story.

The victim sued Wetzel. And she also sued the owner of the
140-acre orchard, saying he, too, was partially responsible for
showing a “complete disregard” for neighbors by giving the hunter
permission to hunt on a property surrounded by roads and homes.

Last month, a Lehigh County jury found Wetzel responsible for
the injuries to the woman. But what has sent shock waves through
Pennsylvania’s hunting community is the jury’s finding that
orchardist Daniel Haas was 10 percent responsible for the accident
just for giving hunters permission to use his property.

The jury will convene again to assess what monetary damages
Wetzel and Haas must pay.

“It’s a disastrous development for open hunting all across
Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Gordon Denlinger, of Churchtown, a
hunter who sits on the House Game and Fisheries Committee.

“If, in fact, those who have open land do have a liability
concern, we’re going to see posted signs go up all over Lancaster
County and across the state.”

The majority of hunting in Pennsylvania occurs on private
property. Some 4.5 million acres of private land is enrolled in
various Game Commission public access programs. Millions more acres
are open to hunting with permission.

In recent weeks, the Game Commission has heard stories about
“landowners disinviting hunters and trappers,” observed spokesman
Jerry Feaser.

The commission’s Southeast Region Office has received “a large
number” of inquiries from worried landowners wondering if they
should withdraw from the agency’s various hunter-access programs
and cut off hunting if, indeed, they might be held accountable for
a hunter’s actions.

“Fewer than a dozen” landowners have taken that action so far,
said Mike Beahm, the agency’s federal aid supervisor.

“We’re encouraging everybody to hold on a bit because the case
is not over yet,” said Cheryl Trewella, a spokeswoman for the
commission. “The majority are sitting tight – just staying
tuned.”

Sitting tight because there is some hope the case won’t be the
buzzkill it could be.

For one thing, there is a law on the books that is supposed to
protect property owners from just this kind of situation.

The Recreational Use of Land and Water Act was passed by
legislators in 1996. The law protects private landowners from
liability if they open their land for 15 forms of public
recreation, including hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, swimming
and boating.

The act was passed to encourage landowners to open up their
properties for public use. Only landowners who don’t charge a fee
are covered.

Courts have ruled the law applies to government bodies as well,
thus shielding the Game Commission from accidents on game lands,
for example, or the State Department of Conservation and Natural
Resources from accidents on state forest lands.

“The only thing that keeps our land open now is that provision,”
Melody Zullinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation
of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said recently.

One section of the law specifically states that a landowner who
allows his or her land to be used by the public “does not assume
responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to persons or
property caused by an act of omission of such persons.”

It is unclear why the law was not used as a defense in the
Lehigh County case. Philadelphia attorney Jay Branderbit, who
represents Haas, has not explained why he did not invoke the law in
court.

The Game Commission and sporting groups are hoping the Lehigh
County judge may yet set aside the jury verdict, based on the state
law.

That’s the best-case scenario.

If not, the commission and a number of national hunting groups
appear ready to finance and join an appeal of the case.

But, as Feaser noted, there would be no appeal unless Haas
decides to.

If the jury, say, finds Haas responsible for a token $1 in the
case, he may be inclined to walk away and wash his hands of any
further legal wrangling. No one could force him to appeal the
verdict.

In the meantime, the case may jolt legislators back into
action.

“It does scare the hell out of me,” said former Pennsylvania
Game Commissioner Stephen Mohr, of Bainbridge.

“Basically, our elected officials assured us that couldn’t be
the case. In the meantime (before any appeal process), our elected
officials should be working on a bill that doesn’t let it up to a
judge to decide.”

Says Rep. Denlinger: “This is a nonpartisan concern, so
Republicans and Democrats will get together very quickly on this
committee to push for corrective legislation to prevent a similar
occurrence.”

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