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Brooklyn jury adds momentum to antigun litigation.

Antigun advocates are heralding a federal jury's landmark verdict finding some gun manufacturers responsible for shootings in New York as gaining legal ground against the gun industry. But the verdict arrives amid an intensifying battle between cities filing suits and the gun industry pushing state legislation to stop lawsuits from being filed.

The New York case began in 1995 when families of seven shooting victims, six of whom died, filed suit against gun manufacturers. They alleged, among other claims, that industry distribution methods allowed the guns to fall into criminal hands. (Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, No. CV-95-0049 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 11, 1999).)

This past February, a Brooklyn federal jury decided that 15 of the 25 manufacturers named as defendants in Hamilton had negligently sold their guns. The jury found 9 of those 15 companies were liable in three shootings. Those manufacturers are American Arms, Inc.; Arcadia Machine & Tool, Inc.; Beretta USA; Bryco Arms; Colt Manufacturing Co.; Glock, Inc.; Phoenix Arms, Inc.; Sigarms, Inc.; and Taurus International Manufacturing.

Although the jury initially awarded $3.95 million to one plaintiff, a nonfatal shooting victim named Steven Fox, they reduced the amount to $520,000 after linking only three of the companies--American Arms, Beretta, and Taurus International --with the shooting and combining their market share of gun sales.

The manufacturers were found "collectively liable" because their distribution methods encouraged illegal trafficking from states with lax gun laws to more strictly regulated states. The manufacturers did not have sales contracts with clauses prohibiting sales at gun shows or to gun dealers without stores. (Vanessa O'Connell & Paul M. Barrett, Gun Makers Are Set Back in Jury Verdict, Wall St. J., Feb. 12, 1999, at A2.)

In a separate action, a few days after the verdict was rendered, Judge Jack Weinstein imposed damages against S.W. Daniel, Inc., also known as Cobray Firearms, Inc., because the company manufactures the type of gun used in two of the shootings. Cobray had defaulted and not appeared in the case. (Paul M. Barrett & Vanessa O'Connell, Gun Makers, Claiming Jury Misconduct, Seek to Throw Out Negligence Verdict, Wall St. J., Feb. 17, 1999 at B11.)

The suit initially sought class action certification and included products liability claims that argued guns were defectively designed and ultra-hazardous. Weinstein denied class certification and dismissed the products claims. He allowed the collective liability claim but required the plaintiffs to show the manufacturers' distribution methods caused each plaintiff's injury. (Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, 935 F.Supp. 1307 (S.D.N.Y. 1996).)

Represented by Brooklyn lawyer Elisa Barnes, the plaintiffs had a former chief of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms testify at trial about illegal gun trafficking at gun shows. A National Economic Research Associates representative testified that 90 percent of handguns used in crimes in New York can be traced to purchases in states with lenient gun laws.

The verdict symbolizes a legal breakthrough for antigun activists because historically gun litigation has failed to hold manufacturers responsible.

"We always said it was going to happen --sooner or later, the gun industry would start losing these cases," said Jonathan Lowy, a staff attorney at the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington, D.C. "Jurors are beginning to reject the industry line that the shooters are the only ones responsible."

The Hamilton decision gives "tremendous momentum" to lawsuits filed by cities against the gun industry, Lowy said. For months, the center has been working with a number of cities. New Orleans and Chicago were the first to file, and their lawsuits illustrate the basic legal theories.

New Orleans is using a products liability theory that claims manufacturers knowingly market and distribute handguns without installing safety devices to prevent shootings. Chicago's lawsuit, like Hamilton, aims at gun manufacturers' distribution methods. Both cities seek to recover the public costs associated with gun violence. Both lawsuits name gun manufacturers, wholesalers, and trade associations.

Several other cities have filed suit, including Atlanta; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Miami-Dade County. Other cities, New York state, and the NAACP are reportedly considering filing suits.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has vowed to fight back with state and federal legislation that will either prevent municipalities from suing the gun industry or set limits on damage awards. Georgia enacted an NRA-backed bill that could preempt Atlanta's suit and prohibits other Georgia cities from filing. Similar legislation has been introduced or is likely to be introduced in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Florida's bill makes it a felony for a municipal or state government to file a lawsuit against the industry. The bill states that guns and ammunition are "lawful and not unreasonably dangerous" and prohibits a gun from being "deemed defective" because it is linked to a shooting death or serious injury. The bill also allows defendants to recover legal fees and expenses. (Sharon Walsh, NRA Pushing to Block Gun Suits, Wash. Post, Feb. 26, 1999, at A1.)

ATLA is assisting state trial lawyer associations that are opposing these bills.
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Author:Gelhaus, Lisa
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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