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Is there premises liability if I allow hunting on my land?

In many rural areas throughout Virginia, there are people who own large areas of land. Some of these landowners may wish to allow hunting by sportsmen on their private property but may worry about the risk of being held liable for damages in a premises liability lawsuit. However, for the responsible landowner, there are laws that protect the landowner while facilitating allowing access to the property for hunters.

First of all, a landowner who owns a large piece of land should understand that the many benefits of allowing hunters access to the land include wildlife management, habitat improvement, road maintenance etc. In many cases, organizations comprised of sportsmen help encourage and promote conservation, safety and science. Despite these benefits, many landowners may prohibit hunting on their property out of fear that they will be held liable if someone is injured while hunting on their property. However, a section of the Virginia Code specifically protects landowners from liability resulting from the opening up of their property to the public for recreational use if specific requirements are met: the landowner cannot charge a fee for coming onto his property to hunt and the landowner cannot be grossly negligent or willfully or maliciously fail to guard or warn against a dangerous condition.

Despite this protection in the law, landowners who seek to avoid premises liability should take steps to eliminate obvious hazards or dangerous property conditions whenever possible. In the case of hazards that cannot be eliminated, a landowner should clearly identify the existence of such conditions and attempt to create a boundary around the dangerous condition which separates it from the unwary sportsmen. In situations involving open wells or structurally unsound buildings, for example, a landowner can cordon or fence off the area and put up warning signs to notify sportsmen of the risk.

In general, sportsmen and hunters have the responsibility to ensure their own safety and to bear the liability for any damages caused by their actions, even while on the property of another. Landowners seeking to further protect themselves from liability, however, may choose to make lease agreements, require individual permits or require proof of insurance before allowing sportsmen on their property to hunt.

Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, "Hunting on Private Property," accessed on Jan. 12, 2015

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