What’s a hunter’s safety responsibility?
That depends, appeals court says
ALPENA — A hunter’s responsibility toward the safety of fellow hunters depends on the expected risks of the hunt, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided last week.
The higher court ruled on an Alpena County court case in which hunter Jeff Payne claimed his father, David Payne, behaved recklessly when a gun the father held fired unexpectedly, resulting in the loss of two of the son’s fingers.
The father’s degree of responsibility for his son’s injury depends on whether it was reasonable for the son to believe he was safe as the two shared a blind, the appeals court said, sending the case back to Alpena courts for further consideration.
In the fall of 2015, the two experienced outdoorsmen participated in a European-style pheasant hunt, in which teams of hunters in two-person blinds fire on pheasants released from a central tower.
During the hunt, after the men shot at and missed a pheasant, the father lowered his shotgun without engaging the safety or taking his finger off the trigger. The gun discharged, and the birdshot struck Jeff Payne’s left hand, blowing off his middle and ring fingers, according to court documents.
During an ensuing court battle, David Payne testified he had forgotten his regular hunting gloves that day and wore thicker gloves than usual. He also said a medical condition causing occasional numbness and tingling in his hands and a partially missing middle finger impact his grip.
The son told the court he knew his father sometimes handled his gun unsafely.
The father admitted he violated basic firearm safety rules during the incident but denied acting recklessly.
At the time, the Alpena court decided that “a reasonable person would have foreseen this inherent risk while participating in such an activity,” according to court documents.
Perhaps not, the appeals court said in its recent opinion, which, because it was published, sets precedents other courts must follow, according to the State Court Administrative Office.
Hunting — like sports such as fencing, archery, and javelin throw — involves an instrument known to be more dangerous than, for example, a basketball or bowling ball. While the discharge of a firearm would be unexpected in everyday life, hunting poses known risks because hunters know they are in the presence of guns, the appeals court said.
The younger Payne knew his father could be careless with a firearm and that his medical conditions impacted his handling of guns, factors which indicated a foreseeable risk to someone hunting with him, the court said.
On the other hand, the men hunted together regularly, both knew the rules of hunting, weather was good, and the defendant did not testify his hands tingled at the time of the incident.
The setup of the pheasant hunt — which posts hunters across a circle from each other — could have made the son feel he was in danger, but, instead, he was hit by an experienced, knowledgeable hunter with whom he stood shoulder to shoulder — and, perhaps, he could not reasonably have guessed that he was in danger of being shot, the court said.
The appeals court sent the case back to Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court to determine whether the son should have known he risked injury by hunting with his father and, based on that decision, how much responsibility the father had to handle his gun safely.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.