Relatives sue gun maker over massacre

May 19, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- Survivors of four victims killed in last year's bloody rampage at a San Francisco high-rise filed lawsuits yesterday against manufacturers of the semiautomatic weapons used in the deadly shooting spree.

The suits, a new tactic in the war against guns, are similar to legal actions brought by smokers against cigarette companies. The suits charge that the gun manufacturers were negligent in selling the deadly weapons to the public because they have no legitimate civilian use.

Gian Luigi Ferri, the assailant in the July 1 shootings, killed eight people and wounded six others at the law firm of Pettit & Martin before killing himself. Mr. Ferri left a rambling letter blaming food additives, lawyers and others for his problems.

The survivors' suits are being handled by four of San Francisco's major law firms, working free-of-charge with the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, chaired by Sarah Brady, wife of Ronald Reagan's former press secretary Jim Brady.

"If we didn't think we could win this suit, we wouldn't be doing it," said Dennis Henigan, an attorney for the center.

Two similar lawsuits filed in Louisiana and Connecticut against gun makers in 1989 failed, but Mr. Henigan predicted that the California case will fare better for a variety of reasons, including new statistics that he said show such guns are disproportionately used in crime.

"It's a tough lawsuit but not without merit and one worth trying," said Gene Erbin, a lawyer familiar with gun liability issues and counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. "It is going to be ** very, very expensive. The manufacturers and the NRA [National Rifle Association] will defend it strenuously."

He said a San Francisco court probably would be receptive to the claims. "I am very confident this will not be dismissed," Mr. Erbin said.

The suits allege that the sale of the TEC DC-9 assault pistol to the general public constitutes an "abnormally dangerous activity" and that the manufacturer should be held strictly liable for damages to those injured by it.

Selling such assault guns is negligent, the suits contend, because they have no legitimate civilian use and are designed for crime.

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