The Virginia Supreme Court recently decided a case arising from a premises liability lawsuit. In that case, a man was visiting his grandparents’ home where they permitted him to target practice in the direction of their neighbor’s residence. During practice, one of his bullets went through the trees and into the neighbor’s home, striking and killing a woman visiting her mother. The victim’s representative filed a lawsuit against the shooter’s grandparents, arguing that they were negligent in allowing him to target practice in the direction of their neighbor’s home. Among several defenses, the defendants argued that they were immune from lawsuits under Virginia’s Recreational Land Use Act.
Virginia maintains a recreational immunity statute that provides immunity to certain landowners in specific situations. Common law mandates that courts should resolve statutory contentions by strictly construing the terms at issue. In Virginia, the recreational use statute holds that landowners do not owe a duty to keep their land safe for entry or use by others for certain recreational activities. These activities include hunting, fishing, camping, water sports, boating, hiking, foxhunting, and bicycle riding. However, the landowner may be liable for “negligence or willful, or malicious” failures to warn against dangerous conditions.
In this case, the court first analyzed the statute’s protected activities, which includes hunting but not target shooting. The court reasoned that the language does not encompass any phrase that would amount to “any other recreational use.” Therefore, the statute does not extend to non-enumerated activities. Next, the statute only provides immunity for property owners that provide a third party with the “use of an easement or license.” The statute expressly stated that the subsection applies regardless of whether the property owner gave the third-party permission to use their land for recreational purposes. Ultimately, the court found that the recreational use statute does not apply because it does not cover instances when a landowner permits to shoot targets on their property.