Plaintiffs’ lawyers tout products-liability cases as a remedy that allows injured poor people to take on powerful corporations, but they can’t credibly make that claim with respect to certain recent suits against gun manufacturers.
In May 2001, a 13-year-old boy was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Barry Grunow, his 35-year-old English teacher at Lake Worth Community Middle School in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was sentenced to 28 years in prison. The victim’s widow, Pam Grunow, filed a lawsuit against Valor Corporation, the vendor of the murder weapon, a .25-caliber pistol and won a jury verdict of $24 million. The jury attributed only 5 percent fault to Valor, rendering it liable for $1.2 million. Raven Corp., the actual manufacturer, is out of business and was not named in the suit.
What’s noteworthy is that the basis for liability was not that the gun was a defective product, which is usually the case in products suits. In fact, the jury specifically found the gun was not defective, but that Valor was negligent for not supplying a lock with the weapon.
But the case was about much more than Mrs. Grunow’s loss, as shown by the participation in the suit by the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, the nation’s largest gun-control group. Mrs. Grunow’s attorney, Bob Montgomery, made no secret of his agenda. Montgomery, who gained recognition by winning an $11.3 billion settlement against the tobacco industry, said, “The purpose of this case was to bring to the public and the legislature that the Saturday night specials have no legitimate purpose whatsoever.” Montgomery’s partner and co-counsel Rebecca Larson added, (Mrs. Grunow’s) primary objective was to make a difference in the gun industry, and she’s done that.
But on Jan. 27, 2003, two months after the trial, the trial judge negated the verdict, ruling that the gun distributor could not be held liable since the jury made a finding the product was not defective. The plaintiff will likely appeal, but in the meantime, the gun-control lobby is not deterred. With its help, dozens of cities are suing gun manufacturers in a transparent effort to achieve gun control through the courts. The Brady Center is pursuing many gun cases with that purpose. In one action, a child victim of an accidental shooting is suing Beretta Corp., the gun manufacturer. In another, the NAACP is suing numerous gun-makers seeking restrictions on the marketing and sale of firearms because of the “disproportionate impact of gun violence on African Americans.” I’ve been scratching my head in vain to figure out what gun manufacturers have to do with that.
And in January, Brady filed a suit against the manufacturer of the rifle allegedly used by Washington, D.C.-area sniper suspects John Muhammad and John Malvo. Also named in the suit was the gun store in Washington state from which the gun was allegedly stolen or lost. Brady’s Legal Director Dennis Henigan said, “If you’re going to choose to sell this kind of a high firepower military gun to the civilian population, we’re saying you have a special responsibility to make sure that the dealers you’re using to sell that gun themselves act responsibly.” What? You’ve got to be kidding. These people expect manufacturers to monitor and micromanage their dealers? Please tell us how that would work in the real world. Besides, according to CNSNews.com, the rifle in question “is a civilian, not military weapon.”
In the absence of a claim that these guns were defective or illegally made or sold, it is outrageous to hold their manufacturers and sellers liable for the intentional (or negligent) acts of third parties not under their control. The tort system is designed to assess culpability of defendants, not to shift blame from the actual wrongdoers to individuals or companies against whom some special interest group has a vendetta.
Those of us who find these types of lawsuits offensive don’t need to be lured into arguments over whether contingent fee or products cases afford destitute plaintiffs a remedy. These cases aren’t primarily about the injured parties, who are just being used as pawns by the rabid gun-control lobby to effectuate policy changes through the courts that they can’t attain legitimately through the legislative process. Gun manufacturers should be applauded for standing up to this bullying. If they roll over on frivolous suits, the gun-control zealots will have effectively circumvented the political process and further chipped away at the beleaguered Second Amendment.