Column: Legal ramifications of hunting accidents

By Barry Covert  –  Guest Columnist

Hunting season is an annual tradition for many New Yorkers. While hunting is meant to be an enjoyable recreational activity, accidents happen and even the most seasoned hunters can make mistakes and/or be at risk from fellow hunters.

Planning, accident-prevention measures and common sense are key. It goes without saying that alcohol and hunting do not mix; perhaps a close second is fatigue and hunting do not mix.

Safety courses are mandatory for new hunters but also should be utilized by infrequent hunters who want to “dust off” the old rifle or shotgun.

Should someone become injured, giving aid should be a hunter’s first priority. However, they should also bear in mind the legal ramifications of an accident. A hunter can be held liable in civil and criminal court for injuring someone while hunting so they must understand their options.

Importance of intent

The bulk of hunting accidents generally fall into three categories: accidental firing that injures a person; missing a target and accidentally hitting a person; and mistaking a person for an animal.

A hunting accident can result in criminal charges and/or a civil lawsuit. The issue of intent is central to liability. In a civil lawsuit, if the person using the gun intended to shoot an animal, that person cannot later argue that there was no intent to hit the unintended victim. In those cases, because the intent was to hit something, that intention supersedes whether or not the intended target was hit.

Under criminal law, intent is treated differently. If the accident is fatal, the prosecution often argues that intent is not relevant because the defendant was criminally negligent. In New York, a person is criminally negligent when they fail to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk. That risk must constitute a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the same situation. N.Y. Penal Law § 15.05.

Non-fatal accidents

In criminal cases, if the accident does not result in the victim’s death, the hunter may be penalized with fines of $5,000 to $10,000, up to one year in jail or both. See Pen. L. §§ 70.00(4); 80.00(1); 120.20; 120.25. In those instances, the chances of being found criminally liable decrease. Such liability requires the criminal action and a supporting mental state. This is where the intent becomes more relevant; punishment is more likely if the defendant fails to provide the necessary aid to the injured party because it shows disregard for that person’s life.

In civil cases, a hunting accident must be intentional or a result of negligence in order for the defendant to be held liable. One defense against an intentional claim is that the defendant did not intend to shoot anything. This is difficult to prove in a hunting accident because hunting inherently involves shooting at a target. The most important factor is the defendant’s intent to use a weapon to hit a target; which target the defendant hits is less important.

Fatal accidents

If the accident is fatal, the state has several options for bringing charges. It can charge the defendant with involuntary manslaughter, which requires criminal negligence on the part of the defendant. A person may be found guilty of manslaughter in the second degree if that person recklessly causes another person’s death. The difference between criminal negligence and civil negligence is that criminal negligence requires the defendant to engage in blameworthy conduct so serious that it creates or contributes to a substantial and unjustifiable risk that another person’s death will occur, and fails to perceive that risk.

According to New York Penal Code § 265.35, a person may be charged with a Class A misdemeanor if that person intentionally discharges a firearm in a public place or with persons nearby, intentionally points a firearm at another person, intentionally aims and discharges a firearm at another person but does not injure them or intentionally aims and discharges and does injure them.

In the event of fatality, a wrongful death claim may be brought in civil court. Wrongful death claims can be either intentional or negligent. One defense against a negligence claim is assumption of the risk. This defense is most useful when the area in which the accident occurred is a popular spot for hunting, and the victim knew of the potential dangers. It can also be argued that the victim contributed to their own injury through carelessness.

Standard of care

In criminal and civil cases, the “standard of care” is used to address the question of negligence. The standard of care asks whether a reasonable person in the same situation as the defendant would have acted the way the defendant did. The defendant’s carelessness is measured against this standard. In order for the defendant to be found liable for negligence, the injury must be a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions.

Should the tragedy of a hunting accident occur, helping the injured party is of the utmost importance. It is also vital that hunters understand how their intentions and the injury’s severity could affect how they are penalized, as well as what the ramifications may be for negligent or careless behavior.

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