Guns on trial California case: At issue is a manufacturer's responsibility for misuse of its product by children.

October 10, 1998

A TRIAL underway in Oakland, Calif., puts the spotlight once again on the important issue of the responsibility of gun manufacturers in accidental shooting deaths.

A California couple say in their lawsuit that a Maryland company, Beretta USA, should have designed its Beretta 92 Compact L semi-automatic pistol so it could not be fired unintentionally. Their son was killed last year when his friend, unaware that a bullet was in the chamber of that Beretta, pulled the trigger.

The company, based in Accokeek, maintains that a device on the weapon warns users that a bullet is in the chamber and counters that the friend acted carelessly. Indeed, the friend was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and his parents settled a lawsuit -- brought by the victim's mother and father -- that accused them of allowing him access to the gun.

The tragedy and the trial put the question of responsibility before a jury at the same time some states, Maryland included, are considering laws to require handguns to be child proof or to be "personalized" with magnetic tape so that only the intended users can fire them.

Beretta officials argued that the Compact L gun is flawlessly constructed and sold only to adults, and that it was not the company's duty to make semi-automatic pistols child-proof. Some experts, though, equate the issue to auto makers' responsibility to install air bags to ensure safety.

The trial will be closely watched because gun manufacturers, like tobacco companies, have found success in the courts in beating back such suits. But attitudes seem to be changing rapidly. This has been intensified by the rash of violent gun incidents, several in California, involving juveniles.

One important indicator of that change was the pledge last year by eight companies, Beretta among them, to install child safety locks on their handguns. But locks are not necessarily child proof; therefore, stronger devices are needed.

The Oakland trial, depending on the outcome, could speed up the move toward safer weapons.

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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