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Landowner Liability Concerns

01/17/2020

Whether you are a bird watcher, a forester, a conservationist or hunter, the dream of owning your own piece of ground for recreation can be the realization of a life spent working and saving so that one day you could be called a landowner.  The joy and satisfaction you receive from spending time with family and friends on your land are is nearly immeasurable and the monetary return on your investment will only serve to validate your decision to own land.

However, with ownership also comes varying levels of responsibility and a duty to those you invite (and even some you didn’t invite) to hunt or recreate on your property.   

As a landowner you may invite family, friends or even employees to an event such as a picnic on your vacant land or you may simply give a hunter permission to hunt.  As a person who has been invited (or simply has your permission) to be on your property for no direct benefit to you, they are referred to by law as a licensee. Landowners who have opened their property up for others to enjoy must act with reasonable care to provide a safe, hazard free environment.

People that are invited to be on the property for the benefit of the landowner (forester, land manager, farm lessee etc) are referred to as invitees and should expect a higher level of care provided by the landowner. Since they were invited on the property for the express benefit of the landowner the law is clear. If the landowner is aware of a dangerous condition on his property that would pose an unreasonable risk of harm, which visitors could not reasonably be expected to recognize, the owner must take reasonable care to either eliminate the danger or warn visitors.

Invitees are provided the highest level of protection because they are on the premises for the sole purpose of furthering the business of the property owner. This means, with respect to invitees, the landowner must take the extra step of inspecting the property and making sure it is safe for visitors.

There is a third category of visitor and that is the uninvited guest or trespasser.  A quick search on the internet of new stories and court documents reveals that trespassers are afforded a lower level of care and when that duty isn’t met landowners have and will be sued by the trespasser. There are only two instances when a landowner is responsible for injuries or damage to a trespasser. If a landowner is aware that people are using his land without his permission and expects their use to continue, he must take precautions to make the property safe or to keep the trespassers out.  If trespassers are using the property without the permission or knowledge of the landowner, the landowner is only responsible for her gross negligence in the event a hazard exists and should have been removed.

Several states have passed legislation in recent years to help protect landowners from large settlements in the event they are sued while allowing the public to recreate on their land. However, the good intentions of these state legislatures cannot prevent a suit from being filed and therefore costing the landowner time and money to defend themselves.

For a relatively small amount, timberland insurance (also referred to as vacant land insurance or trespasser insurance) can be purchased which protects landowners from lawsuits resulting from injuries sustained on their properties by others. This type of insurance is specifically intended for visitors that have not paid a fee or been charged to on the property. For those instances where a fee is charged (hunting lease) there is a similar, but slightly different liability coverage option.

The American Hunting Lease Association remains committed to protecting the assets of landowners, while providing hunters with access to as much private land as possible. The AHLA offers both types of coverage through its Association.

Visit the American Hunting Lease Association at www.ahuntinglease.org to see how affordable vacant land liability insurance can be.

  Everyone has heard the old adage “. . .the only thing they aren’t making more of is land.”

No charging, no fee

To encourage landowners to make their lands more available to the public for recreational purposes, including hunting and fishing, many states explicitly shield landowners from civil liability for injuries to persons who use their land without charge — unless the landowner willfully or maliciously fails to guard against or warn of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity. Landowners will not be liable unless they violate this standard of care.