State House considers more landowner protections

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HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania state legislators may expand legal protection for farmers and other landowners who let people use their property for recreation, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, bird-watching and riding snowmobiles, motorcycles or ATVs.

Two Washington County Farm Bureau officials, John Scott and George Wherry, like the legislation that a House committee is now debating and hope it gets approved quickly.

"If a guy is riding an all-terrain vehicle and hits a log lying on the ground and rolls his ATV, [under the bill] he couldn't come back at the landowner and say 'Why was that log there?' " said Mr. Scott, who grows corn and hay and milks 75 cows on his 300-acre farm on the border of Allegheny and Washington counties.

"You never know what might happen if a guy is hiking across your land," he added. The proposed law "gives me protection if the guy steps in a groundhog hole and twists his ankle."

Mr. Wherry, who has sheep and cattle on a 360-acre farm near Scenery Hill, called the bill "a good thing. We want to protect a landowner against any unscrupulous individuals who pretend [to be] enjoying recreation but then have the pretense of an accident" and file a lawsuit against the landowner, he said.

The House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee recently held a hearing on the measure, House Bill 544, where 20 groups expressed support.

"We should have this bill enacted," said Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Altoona, tourism panel chairman. "It has a positive impact on tourism and recreation. Most industries and citizens support it as a way of bringing more people into the state [for recreation]. This is especially a big issue for farmers."

The bill is backed by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and a dozen other groups. It would amend the original 1966 law that protects landowners, making it harder for recreational users to file personal injury lawsuits if they injure themselves on private property.

One factor that led landowners to seek more legal protection was a 2008 lawsuit "that held a farmer and his wife civilly liable for injuries incurred off-premises by a stray bullet fired from a hunter whom the landowner allowed to hunt," said Farm Bureau counsel John Bell.

Many landowners "were outraged" by this ruling, he told the panel. "Landowners massively threatened to permanently close future access of others to hunting on their property."

The current bill would expand legal protections beyond just the use of land, to include persons who slip on boat docks and access ramps, on bridges over streams, on paved and unpaved trails, on fishing piers or in nearby parking lots where they leave their vehicles.

Current law "doesn't adequately protect private landowners who wish to help the public" but who fear legal liability, said Andy Loza, director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, which has 120,000 members in 75 groups, including the Fox Chapel Land Conservation Trust and the Allegheny Valley Trails Association.

As a result, Pennsylvanians who seek recreation "are left with fewer opportunities to hike, bike, hunt, bird-watch and otherwise enjoy the outdoors," he added.

Fish and Boat Commission official Devin DeMario said current law gives landowners some protection from lawsuits but not enough, and as a result many of them won't let strangers onto their property.

"Many prime fishing destinations in the state have become difficult or impossible to access due to landowners posting 'No Trespassing' signs on their properties," she said.

Other supporters include the state Snowmobile Association, the Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, borough and county government associations, the Motorcycle Dealers Association and the Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which represents 250,000 ATV and dirt bike owners in the state.

By reducing the threat of lawsuits, more landowners would be encouraged to open up their property for off-road riding, spokesman Fred Brown said.

The main opposition to House Bill 544 is coming from the state trial lawyers association, now called the Pennsylvania Association for Justice. The group has considerable political clout with legislators.

Lawyers association lobbyist Mark Phenicie objected to making it hard to sue in the event of injuries from snowmobiling or ATV riding.

"A landowner may not have acted intentionally or criminally but certainly with a wanton and reckless indifference to the rights of others and still be immune" from legal action, he complained.

He said the bill "does not adequately protect those injured as a result of recklessness or gross negligence" by a property owner. If "a child is injured or killed as a result, the wrongful landowner is immune [from legal action]. Is that fair?"

He also objected to another aspect of the bill. If a landowner is sued by someone injured on his property -- and then the landowner wins in court -- the plaintiff who was injured would have to pay the landowner's legal fees.

But the bill doesn't provide "the same corresponding award to a successful injured party" if he wins the lawsuit, Mr. Phenicie said.

The tourism panel hasn't set a date for voting on the bill. If it approves, the measure moves to the full House for action.

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Tom Barnes, freelance writer:


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