Pa. lawyer examines civil immunity provision in new 'castle doctrine' law

Jon Campisi Jul. 8, 2011, 12:55pm

With a stroke of his pen, Pennsylvania’s chief executive appears to have made it difficult, if not near impossible, for survivors of attackers killed in self-defense shootings to sue the person who killed their family member.

But in reality, nothing’s impossible, especially in a litigious society.

On June 28, Gov. Tom Corbett officially signed House Bill 40 into law. The so-called ‘castle doctrine’ legislation means those who fear imminent threat outside the home can respond with deadly force if they feel their lives are in danger. Traditionally, victims in Pennsylvania were only allowed to deploy deadly force while under attack inside their residence.

The law no doubt has repercussions for trial attorneys because of a built-in provision that says those cleared by law enforcement in what are determined to be self-defense shootings are protected by civil immunity, meaning they can’t be sued by the attacker’s kin.

Or can they?

Phil Kline, a Quakertown, Pa.-based attorney specializing in Pennsylvania firearms laws, says his reading of the civil immunity provision shows lawsuits can still be brought. It’s just that now, those who sue on behalf of family members killed in self-defense situations have a stronger burden of proof.

“It’s not going to keep you out of court,” Kline said.  “There’s nothing that stops the suits. The prothonotary isn’t going to reject the filing.”

What the civil immunity provision does do, Kline said, is it makes it a lot more difficult for people to prevail in civil court when the plaintiff is a surviving family member of a perp who got shot to death because he or she threatened someone else’s life.

Kline said he believes the legislators who sponsored House Bill 40 inserted the civil immunity provision because “it just strikes people as so outrageous” that these types of lawsuits are brought about.

Lawmakers said as much in prior interviews.

“The ultimate insult upon injury having been attacked … and then having to defend yourself, only to find yourself defending yourself in the legal system, I don’t know how much more incorrect, turned-on-its-head wrong that could be,” state Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from York County who sponsored the bill, said in a previous interview with the Pennsylvania Record.

Asked if he, as an attorney, has heard about many of these types of lawsuits being filed, Kline said it’s hard to say. To his knowledge, these civil claims following self-defense shootings are not commonplace, simply due to the fact that self-defense shootings themselves are statistically rare.

Typically, the sight of a firearm displayed by a potential attack victim is enough to send a bad guy fleeing, Kline said.

Still, Kline believes having a civil immunity provision built into the law could be that much more of a safeguard for those who may find themselves in such a situation.

“I think this is the way the law should read,” Kline said.

Kline is known for his precise knowledge on firearms laws in the Keystone State. In addition to representing clients in gun-related matters, Kline also teaches his fair share of firearms laws workshops to gun owners, those applying for carry licenses and simply anyone looking to brush up on their rights.

His familiarity with Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act (UFA) makes him somewhat of an authority on the matter.

As such, Kline was actively awaiting a read of the house bill that was recently signed into law.

But a few things struck him as odd. First of all, the term ‘castle doctrine’ being thrown around is actually a misnomer, he said.

The ‘castle’ refers to the home, and Pennsylvania already had a so-called ‘castle doctrine’ law on the books.

House Bill 40 is actually what’s known in other states as a ‘stand-your-ground law,’ since it deals with self-defense outside of the house.

Then there’s the supposed “civil immunity” provision. While lawmakers are touting this as a sort-of blanket prohibition against civil lawsuits in justified self-defense shooting situations, Kline knows better.

It’s still going to be up to the courts to decide whether or not a suit has merit, he said, meaning attorneys will still be able to physically file lawsuits on behalf of family members of those killed during the commission of what are determined to be self-defense shootings, contrary to popular belief.

What this law does do, however, is make the process more favorable to a defendant who is being sued by a relative or relatives of the person he may have killed in a self-defense situation.

Kline said if a person is never criminally prosecuted, because the district attorney determined the shooting was self-defense, there was never any determination in a court of law that the person’s actions were consistent with the law.

In this case, surviving family members of the dead attacker are free in civil court to try to show that the actions of the shooter were not consistent with the law.

“The immunity only kicks in after there’s a judicial determination that your actions were authorized by the new law,” Kline said, explaining the particulars of the civil immunity provision of H.B. 40. “It’s not going to prevent the lawsuits in the first place.”

But while the law may not be perfect to some, Kline said he still feels it’s the best law on Pennsylvania’s books in a long while.

“This is about protecting good people who are victimized once,” he said. “I think it’s the way the law should be. It’s as good as it can get.”

Kline said those who will probably benefit the most from the new law are police. Cops, he said, are the number one group of people often hit with use-of-force lawsuits.

“The cops got a lot out of this and the rest of us got a little bit,” he said of the new law.

As for those bad guys, Kline said he honestly doesn’t know if the new law will deter criminals from carrying out attacks all that much.

“For the types of people who are going to require killing, I don’t’ know that either the immunity [provision] or the award of [attorney’s] fees is going to be a sufficient deterrent,” to committing crimes, he said. “I think mostly this is going to protect cops and municipalities.”

For a reading of the full text of House Bill 40, visit

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