Tracy Epps, a 52-year-old Emporia man, was shot by a hunter as he was riding down the road on a Saturday morning with his dog. As Epps passed by an organized deer hunt operated by the Brink Hunt Club in Greenville County, Jake Savi, a 16-year-old boy, fired his rifle across the road with the bullet striking Epps’ vehicle and lodging in his spine. Epps was transferred via med-evac to VCU Medical Center, where he underwent numerous surgical procedures and remained hospitalized for approximately two months. The bullet wound left Epps permanently paralyzed from his waist down.
Savi’s parents were divorced and he lived with his father, who had a homeowners’ policy with limits of $300,000. A declaratory judgment action against State Farm filed in U.S. District Court produced another $100,000 from his mother’s homeowners’ policy, as he lived part-time with her and her new husband. The complaint named the elected hunt master for Brink Hunt Club, who also had a homeowners’ policy with $300,000 and the hunt club had an additional $1,000,000 in liability coverage for its officers and directors.
Savi’s case was described by the defense as “hopeless” and the $400,000 in homeowners’ coverage available to him was offered early in the case. An investigation by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries had concluded that Savi had fired his rifle across the road in violation of Virginia statutes. The hunt master and hunt club denied liability, taking the position that it was not the club’s fault that Savi violated the law and shot across the road. The club’s by-laws provided that the hunt master had the responsibility to determine who could use a rifle on the day of the hunt. On this particular morning, the hunt master admitted he gave no direction on the use of rifles and, accordingly, the 16-year-old boy said he presumed that it was okay to use it. Plaintiff’s experts testified in depositions that it was unsafe to fire a rifle in the area of the hunt as there were roads, farms, homes and livestock, all within the range of the rifle shot. The only safe shot would have been with a shotgun.
The plaintiff relied on the theory of assumed duty as set forth in Burns v. Gagnon, 283 Va. 657 (2012). As a result of the provisions in the club’s by-laws, the hunt master had assumed the duty to be responsible for the safe use of rifles on organized hunts. Thus the plaintiff argued that he owed a duty to the other hunters and other persons in the area of the hunt, including Epps. His failure to use due care in the performance of this duty resulted in the young hunter firing his rifle when it was dangerous to do so. In accordance with Gagnon, whether or not someone has assumed a duty is a matter for the jury to determine and not the court. The negligence of the elected hunt master, as an officer of the corporation, triggered the club’s liability coverage. Faced with a jury issue and the threat of a multi-million dollar verdict, the hunt master and hunt club eventually settled after several months of mediation.
Type of action: Personal injury – negligence
Injuries alleged: Multiple injuries from a gunshot wound resulting in permanent paralysis from the waist down
Name of case: Epps v. Savi
Court: Suffolk Circuit Court
Case no.: CL13-0262
Resolved by: Mediation
Mediator: Thomas S. Shadrick
Date resolved: Dec. 15, 2015
Special damages: Medical expenses of $579,000
Verdict or settlement: Settlement
Attorney for plaintiff: William L. Perkins III, Virginia Beach
Attorneys for defendant: Suzanne Beck Teumer, Suffolk; Guy M. Harbert III, Roanoke; Raymond J. Sinnott III, Midlothian; Jack T. Randall, Suffolk
Plaintiff’s experts: Chuck McKensie, hunt master, Norfolk; Evan Carson, firearms, Manassas; Jack Landers, hunting safety instructor, Scottsville
Defendant’s experts: Jesse Harrell, hunting safety instructor, Emporia
Insurance carriers: State Farm Insurance, Virginia Farm Bureau, Farmers Insurance