Decedent, 61, and shooter, Dr. Correll, were both members of WAIDS Hunt Club in Sussex County. Both were experienced hunters. On Dec. 30, 2013, the hunt club organized a group deer hunt with the use of hunting dogs. Shooter had hunted the particular tract of land numerous times prior to this hunt, thus was familiar with the topography. Decedent had never hunted that tract and was thus unfamiliar with the area. Each hunter was assigned to a particular “stand” (location) strategically determined prior to the hunt. Decedent and shooter rode together to the area. Shooter instructed decedent where his “stand” was located and advised decedent to walk into the woods, continue down the hill, cross the swamp and take his stand. Shooter watched decedent enter the woods. After walking approximately 10 yards into the woods, decedent encountered a ground blind (tent) in his line of travel. Concerned about the ground blind, decedent via two-way radio questioned shooter as to whether the ground blind would be occupied. Shooter walked in the field towards the wood-line and then advised decedent to continue walking past the ground blind down the slope, cross the swamp and take his stand. Decedent did as instructed.
Shooter took his stand in the corner of the field. Shooter was standing in a relatively flat field and the field sloped gradually toward the woods line, where it then sloped precipitously down to the swamp. The difference in elevation from the ground where shooter stood to the ground where decedent stood was 6.66 feet. Deer began running parallel to the swamp and towards decedent. Decedent took four shots at the deer. Shooter heard the four shots fired and acknowledged that he knew decedent had fired at the deer. Two doe broke out into the open field as a result of decedent’s firing at them. Once they entered the field in site of shooter, one turned to his left and ran parallel with the woods line and the other turned to his right and did the same. Shooter fired twice at the doe that turned to his left. This doe was, according to the shooter, about 8-10 feet from the woods line. The pellets from the first shot missed the doe and struck at several locations into the woods along a fairly tight and consistent pattern from the shooter to the decedent. Due to the slope, approximately four inches of the decedent’s head was just above the ground level of the field. One pellet from the shot struck decedent in the left temple, entered his brain and did irreversible and permanent damage. Decedent died at MCV the following day. Shooters’ second shot killed the doe.
Based on his written admission to DGIF officers, after the shots were fired and decedent was not responding to radio communications, shooter entered the woods in the location he saw decedent enter, walked by the same ground blind and within seconds located decedent on the ground. In response to further questions by DGIF officers as to where he observed decedent enter the woods, shooter pointed in the same direction of the shot path that ultimately killed decedent.
Shooter contested liability. Shooter contended that based on his proximity to the doe he fired upon, it appeared to be a safe shot and believed that the ground in the field was an adequate backstop for the buckshot. He further contended that because of his own knowledge that the swamp was more shallow to the right of the line that decedent walked down to the swamp, he assumed the decedent would have realized that, walked further to his right and crossed the swamp there, and further assumed that had he crossed the swamp at that location, he would have stayed in that location. Shooter also argued that decedent was contributorily negligent in not using his radio to advise shooter that he was not where shooter assumed he would have been.
Widow of decedent retired from her job of 28 years, effective Dec. 31, 2013, the very day her husband died.
Mediation was attempted twice with different mediators with no success.
Prior to the civil action, shooter had been charged criminally with manslaughter and reckless handling of a firearm. Shooter pled guilty to reckless handling of a firearm and the manslaughter charge was noll prossed.
Originally both the hunt club and the shooter were named defendants. Prior to trial, hunt club was nonsuited. After two days of trial and after hearing from experts from both sides as well as the shooter, and the shooter’s criminal lawyer, the plaintiff, widow of the decedent, made a motion for a directed verdict on the issue of liability, arguing negligence per se and no evidence of contributory negligence for a jury to consider. The court agreed and instructed the jury that the shooter was negligent as a matter of law, that his negligence was the proximate cause of the injury, and that they should only consider the issue of damages. The jury returned a verdict of $350,000.
Type of action: Wrongful Death – Hunting Accident
Injuries alleged: Lethal wound by buckshot pellet in head and died next day
Name of case: Harris, Adm’r of Estate of Thomas Harris, deceased v. James Allen Correll and Waids Hunt Club
Court: Sussex Circuit Court
Case no.: CL15000063-00
Tried before: Jury with directed verdict
Name of judge: Hon. Robert G. O’Hara
Date resolved: May 4, 2016
Special damages: $87,959.50 medical bills; $1787.95 funeral expenses; decedent was unemployed receiving social security disability in amount of $ 1600.00 per month, after taking in account the widow’s benefit of $400.00 per month, the loss of income claimed was @ $ 1200.00 per month.
Verdict or settlement: Directed verdict on issue of liability; jury verdict on damages
Attorneys for plaintiff: Steven Novey, Prince George