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Dealers on trial: a spotlight on litigation in the shooting industry.

Manufacturers recognize that under product liability laws firearms are considered a class of dangerous products that subject manufacturers to legal responsibility to consumers if their guns are defectively designed or produced. Innocent bystanders harmed by the negligent or reckless conduct of gun owners are also trying to recover damages from gunmakers with varying results. Courts initially denied bystanders this right to damages, but as the "strict products liability" theory developed, more and more gun makers were held accountable for injuries their products caused outside the consumer warranty law area on the basis that the sales market created by manufacturers exposed bystanders to increased risk of harm.

In 1985 a Maryland Court of Appeals handed down one of the first disturbing opinions. It focused on acts of criminal conduct by other parties by adopting a new strict liability cause of action on the grounds that the risks of "Saturday Night Specials" outweigh their benefits to society. The court ruled that their illegal use was foreseeable, and as between a totally innocent victim and the maker of a product so commonly used in criminal activity, the maker was most at fault, and should pay for any resulting injuries. More recently several other courts have utilized a similar approach against manufacturers of semi-automatic "assault weapons."

If this "strict liability" trend continues, bystanders who are injured in unintentional accidents by careless gun handlers (not due to product malfunctions) may too gain large damage awards. For example, a bystander harmed in a hunting accident might receive an award under the theory that guns used for hunting are dangerous products not used by a substantial portion of the population and companies putting them into the stream of commerce are in a better position than the user to bear the burden of gun-related injuries. Paying for Crimes

Already this liability in the criminal area has put heavy pressure on manufacturers, and dealers, to see that firearms are not purchased by persons considered likely to commit crimes. Thankfully, at least a few more courts are distinguishing between victims of accidents caused by law-abiding citizens and incidents involving criminals, saying an intervening criminal user cuts off responsibility in negligence cases, thereby effectively denying recovery.

It remains to be seen if this will in the future be the case in non-criminal activities as well. At least it's looking somewhat promising with larger numbers of courts and legal scholars believing the consumer's own awareness of the inherent risks in using firearms justifies a manufacturer not being targeted for a bystander's injuries, the user engaging in the negligent activity should be the one to absorb the loss and indemnify the gunmaker.

Advocating more consumer accountability is likely the key argument manufacturers (along with dealers) must continue to aggressively push in their defense of bystander lawsuits. Increasing product prices to "spread the risk" of having to pay expensive court judgments simply can't be a practical strategy over the long haul.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Publishers' Development Corporation
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wenner, Joan
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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