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Fall in a hole while hunting? SD Legislature looking to change laws

PIERRE, S.D. -- One seemingly small change could have huge implications to liability laws for landowners when injuries occur on their land. With House Bill 1068, legislators reviewed a law affecting landowners who allow others to use their land a...

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PIERRE, S.D. - One seemingly small change could have huge implications to liability laws for landowners when injuries occur on their land.

With House Bill 1068, legislators reviewed a law affecting landowners who allow others to use their land and proposed removing the words "gross negligence" from a clause in the law.

House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, R-Platte, said the term was too broad, and removing it places responsibility for injuries on the people using the land, rather than the landowner.

"If you're out in the field at all, you know there are numerous things out there that the landowner has no control over," Qualm said. "That's what it's deemed to take care of, so we don't have to worry about all the holes that are out there."

According to South Dakota Codified Law 20-9-16, landowners face liability in three instances, including the first clause that states "gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct of the owner."

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The proposed change to remove the words "gross negligence" was introduced with bipartisan support from eight representatives and four senators, including Qualm and Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, D-Burke, who both representing Charles Mix, Gregory and Tripp counties and a portion of Bon Homme County in District 21.

Sutton said the term was imprecise, which leaves much to the discretion of judges. He said insurance companies are accounting for negligence, which has caused an increase in the cost of liability insurance.

"It could potentially lower liability insurance costs and potentially, if not lower them, slow them down," Sutton said.

By removing the term and leaving "willful or wanton misconduct," landowners would likely only be liable for intentionally causing harm to others, Sutton said.

"If they did willfully create a problem, then I think there are more problems than just being liable," Sutton said.

The second clause in the law, which the bill does not change, states a landowner is liable for injury in cases where he or she charges someone for recreational use or agritourism activities, but Qualm said the change will likely affect paid lands, too, like shooting preserves or other outdoor recreation sites.

"That's how I interpret it. I guess we'll find out when it gets to committee and they get it fully discussed and see what they come up with," Qualm said.

The details will be discussed in depth during a House Judiciary Committee meeting on Wednesday, Qualm said.

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Qualm expects the bill to pass fairly easily. He called the change "common sense."

"We're really trying to get rid of that aspect so everybody can still go out and have a good time, and the landowner doesn't have to worry," Qualm said. "In this day and age, lawsuits can happen at the drop of a hat, so we're just trying to, for some of that, put some common sense into it."

Sutton expects some opposition and debate and has not decided which way he will ultimately vote on the bill. He said this could be an issue that divides representatives of rural and urban populations.

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTA
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