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Landowner liability protection major victory for hunters
Christian Berg Outdoors
Pennsylvania sportsmen scored a major political victory over the weekend when Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law legislation that protects property owners who allow hunting on their land.

The new law, formerly known as House Bill 13, makes it clear that landowners cannot be held responsible for personal injuries or property damages caused by hunters allowed on their properties -- so long as no access fee is charged.

*Results not projectable Rendell's signature on Saturday completed a clean sweep for the measure, which passed the Senate 50-0 last week and earlier sailed through the House by a 199-0 vote -- demonstrating tremendous, bi-partisan support for Pennsylvania's hunting heritage.

Passage of the legislation should bring a big sigh of relief to landowners, many of whom had posted their properties or eliminated hunting in the wake of the high-profile Casey Burns civil lawsuit, a local case.

''The fear of landowners about liability was grounded in reality. What we had to do was change that reality by providing them liability protection,'' said Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny, who introduced the bill. ''Without our action, this situation would have amounted to a train wreck for hunters and financial ruin for the many businesses that rely on Pennsylvania hunters and visitors from out of state for much of their income.''

House Bill 13 was championed by sportsmen's groups across the state, and many hunters are hopeful that properties closed in response to the Burns case will open again.

''This is a major victory for hunters and landowners,'' said hunter Anthony Ezolt of Richmond Township, Berks County, who lost access to a prime farm in northern Lehigh County as a result of the Burns case. ''I just hope it takes away enough of the sting from a lawsuit that shouldn't have turned out the way it did, no matter what the law.''

Adoption of the legislation also was praised by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which warned that thousands more acres would be posted if action wasn't taken by the time hunting seasons roll around in the fall.

Likewise, Pennsylvania Game Commission officials praised the Legislature's swift action to address the liability issue. Although the commission offers public hunting on 1.4 million acres of state game lands, that's a relatively small area compared to the 4.4 million acres of private land enrolled in the agency's various public access programs.

The Legislature's action should eliminate the potential for a repeat of the Burns suit, in which a Lehigh County jury found North Whitehall orchard owner Daniel Haas partly liable for a November 2004 accident caused by hunter Craig Wetzel, who fired a rifle bullet that missed its target, traveled more than half a mile and struck Burns in the head outside her home.

Wetzel pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the shooting -- receiving six months probation, $5,500 in fines and restitution and a five-year suspension of his hunting license. Burns later sued both Wetzel and Haas, and the jury found Wetzel 90 percent liable and Haas 10 percent liable.

This February, Haas agreed to a financial settlement with Burns to avoid the possibility of an even higher jury award during the damages phase of the trial.

The Burns case was a shock to many people who had long assumed the state's Recreational Use of Land and Water Act protected property owners. The act, adopted in 1965, was created to limit landowner liability as a way to encourage them to open their properties for various forms of public recreation, including hunting, fishing, swimming, hiking, camping and boating.

Although the Recreation Act was never brought up in the Burns case, some legal experts believe the lawsuit exposed a loophole in the law, which does not specifically offer liability protection in instances where property damage or personal injuries occur off landowners' properties.

House Bill 13 changed that by amending the Recreation Act and making it clear landowners do not ''assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to persons or property, wherever such persons or property are located, caused while hunting.''

As Sen. Lisa M. Boscola, D-Northampton, said last week before voting for the bill: ''The landowner should not be responsible. The person who…pulled the trigger should be.''

cberg@mcall.com