Hunting accident pits father against son

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today reinstated a hunter’s lawsuit against the owner of property on which he was hunting, whom he says is responsible for his falling from a tree while trying to climb into a deer stand in Pine County.

The hunter’s father owns the property.

A district court found for Corey Ouradnik’s father, Robert, of Forest Lake, who says he reinforced boards nailed into trees that were used to climb into deer stands. But he says he ran out of six-inch screws before getting to the board that gave way when his son was 16 feet off the ground.

The lower court said Robert was shielded from liability under Minnesota’s recreational-use statute, which limits a property owner’s liability for hunters who use the land with permission. It said Robert couldn’t have foreseen the incident.

Robert only let close family members use the land for hunting and the Court of Appeals needed to answer whether the state’s recreational-use statute shields owners of land that isn’t open to public hunting.

The goal of the statute is to encourage private landowners to allow the public to hunt, by absolving them of some liability.

But the Legislature never defined what “public” is.

“Based on the plain meaning of “public,” we conclude that the term is unambiguous and means community, which is more than a few family members,” Court of Appeals Judge Diane Bratvold wrote today on behalf of the three-judge panel.

So the Court of Appeals ruled (see ruling) that in order to receive protection from the statute, Robert Ouradnik would have had to open up his land to the public, not just his son and close family members.

The district court concluded that the legislature’s intent to promote use of private lands for recreational purposes will be undermined if a landowner must give permission to the general public before liability limitations apply. Similarly, Robert contends that a “prudent landowner will not hold land open to the general public without restrictions.”

Robert also argues that the policy behind the recreational-use statute is to “encourage landowners to allow others to use their lands for [] potentially risky activities” with the liability limitation as a “trade off” for the owner.

We reject these contentions for two reasons. First, the legislature identified its policy goal when it adopted section 604A.20, and that policy makes no mention of “risky activities.” In fact, the recreational uses identified in the statute include many activities that are not usually considered risky, such as picnicking, firewood gathering, and nature study.

Second, even if we assume that owners will not offer their lands to the public for recreational use, we cannot ignore the legislature’s express policy statement in interpreting the recreational-use statute, nor can we disregard the plain meaning of the word “public.” It is for the legislature to decide how well a statute achieves its stated objective, and, to modify it accordingly.

The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the district court for a new trial.