'Castle Doctrine' provides for civil immunity

By Jon Campisi | May 23, 2011

Taking another person’s life in a self-defense situation would no doubt be traumatizing enough.

But what could be even more detrimental is facing a financially-draining civil lawsuit brought by the dead attacker’s kin.

Pennsylvania law allows for self-defense shootings in situations where an innocent victim believes his or her life to be in danger.

It also says you’re allowed to fire your weapon to save someone else’s life.

But in the past, being cleared by the district attorney of any criminal wrongdoing has not been enough to stop the lawsuits from being filed.

Now, with the commonwealth’s expanded “castle doctrine” law on the horizon, those found to be involved in justified self-defense shootings would be granted civil immunity when it comes to use of force, even deadly force.

There are currently two versions of the castle doctrine bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly–House Bill 40 and Senate Bill 273–both essentially containing the same provisions with regard to civil litigation.

The Senate version of the bill passed that body back in March, while the House version passed in April.

Governor Tom Corbett, the former state attorney general, has said he will most likely sign whatever bill gets to his desk first.

Pennsylvania already has a castle doctrine on the books, but gun owners have complained for years that the “duty to retreat” provision puts those who act in a self-defense manner in a precarious legal position, since they are in danger of being criminally charged if it’s found that they could have safely retreated instead of resorting to firing their weapon, or otherwise defending themselves with force.

A revised version of the law, they argue, could provide better protections for those who are victimized.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the bill, and one surely feared by some trial attorneys, is the civil immunity provision.

Under the proposed legislation, those cleared by prosecutors in self-defense shootings cannot be sued in civil court.

“Yeah, that happens. It seems hard to believe to the layperson,” Sen. Richard Alloway, (R-33), the prime sponsor of S.B. 273, said on the civil lawsuits.

Alloway, who is also an attorney, told the Pennsylvania Record he’s been privy to cases where people who have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing in what were determined to be self-defense acts, have nevertheless faced civil suits.

Alloway said he and other members of the legislature were disturbed by the fact that such a thing could occur, hence the reason to build a civil immunity provision into the bill.

“I just think that’s something that we need to take a look at,” he said.

Rep. Scott Perry, (R-92), the prime sponsor of the House companion bill, couldn’t agree more.

“The tenets of justice are turned on their head in favor of the would-be perpetrator,” Perry said. “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.”

Perry said it’s disgraceful to think that, as the law stands now, a burglar who trips on something in a home he’s breaking into could turn around and sue the homeowner.

The civil immunity provision, he said, is designed “to take away that added insult to injury.”

While it’s been reported that law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have opposed an expanded “castle doctrine” bill in general, for fear it could lead to people firing their weapons indiscriminately, Sen. Alloway said nobody in those fields seem to have a problem with the civil immunity provision.

Even members of the state trial lawyers association, whom Alloway said he deals with frequently, don’t seem to object to the civil immunity provision.

While the “castle doctrine” is often viewed solely as a gun owner-friendly bill, it’s considered much more by those who support the bill.

“As a gun owner, I try to avoid discussing guns period when it comes to castle doctrine,” said Philadelphia resident Al Do.

Do said someone can be sued just as easily by a person, or the family of a person, who instigated an attack, only to find himself on the other end of the stick. To Do, this bill is important because it makes sure the victim is no longer continually victimized.

“Gun owners tend to sell this as a gun rights [bill]. But it’s really not about guns at all, it’s about self-defense … and protecting you from being held liable financially,” Do said.

In Do’s view, the civil immunity provision is crucial, since it would mean an end to frivolous suits filed by an attacker who aims to benefit financially from someone he or she victimized in the first place.

If someone who believes his or her life is threatened, and they have no choice but to resort to self-defense actions, and said actions are deemed justifiable by law enforcement, it’s ridiculous to think that the initial aggressor can try to benefit financially from the situation, Do and others like him contend.

“If you want to convince people that castle doctrine is a good thing, especially with that civil immunity, it has absolutely nothing to do with guns,” Do said. “I think when people realize that, it will get much more support.”

Rep. Perry said he believes both Florida and Texas have castle doctrine laws that contain similar civil immunity provisions. Other states may also have a similar provision in their respective castle doctrines, he said.

Perry said Pennsylvania lawmakers wanted to ensure that there were no doubts as to the goals of the bill.

“We need to make sure that the intent is crystal clear,” he said.

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