Landowner liability and permission to hunt

One of the top reasons for the decline in hunting across the country is the lack of access to available land. The amount of public land in some areas is limited, making it difficult to find access for recreational activities, including hunting.

Many landowners, especially those concerned about our future generations’ ability to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors, want to provide access for friends and family, or possibly the general public — paying it forward and sustaining our outdoor heritage. While allowing others to utilize your land for recreation can be a rewarding experience, you should consider a few factors to avoid a potential lawsuit if someone is injured or killed.

Growing up on a farm in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was easy to gain access to the property of surrounding farmers. If I was pursuing a gobbler, crossing the fence onto the neighbor’s property wasn’t a problem. As time went on and many farms were sold to new owners, often from the city, the idea of restricted access became more prevalent. With litigation concerns in the back of their mind, landowners began exploring the legalities involved with allowing others to use their properties.

If you plan to allow recreational activities on your land, including hunting, there are several things to consider before you grant permission. Each state has different laws regarding landowner liability in the event of an accident. Some states, in response to dwindling access issues have passed laws to limit landowner liability to help make it easier to give permission to hunt, fish or participate in other recreation. Contact officials in your home state to determine what laws apply. Department of Natural Resources staff or local conservation agents can help steer you in the right direction.

State laws regarding posting your property are also varied. Unposted ground in some states grants implied access; however, other states assume no permission to trespass, even if unposted. In any case, it is best to mark your property boundaries to prevent confusion. Several states require landowners to post any hazards that may be encountered on the property and correct those that they can before allowing access. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has a list of trespass laws for each state. For more information, contact Lane Kisonak, AFWA legal affairs manager, at lkisonak@fishwildlife.org.

Once you’ve decided to provide access, you’ll need to discuss liability coverage with your insurance company. It’s important to spell out exactly how you plan to use the land. Some policies provide limited coverage with specified limits per event. Many companies also offer “umbrella” policies with higher limits. Coverage can also vary depending on whether you plan to charge or allow free access. A good agent will also be aware of how state laws apply, although it would be good to discuss it with them to be sure. Some hunting clubs and similar groups have their own liability insurance, but, in many cases, unless you are directly named on the policy, it doesn’t protect you from being sued.

There are attorneys who specialize in landowner liability issues, so in addition to talking with your insurance agent, you should set up a meeting to discuss your plans. This can be money well spent to help protect your assets in the event of a lawsuit. Depending on state and local laws and your plans, the lawyer may recommend having a permission/hold harmless slip signed by each land user. If an access fee is involved, they may recommend all parties sign a more formal contract. Such fees can include trading work, goods or other considerations in addition to monetary payments.   

Once you’ve done your homework and covered any liability issues, giving others the chance to enjoy the outdoors and continue our valuable outdoor heritage can provide a lifetime of rewards.

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