Calif. jury clears Beretta Md. firm is found not negligent in teen-ager's death

Legal affairs

November 17, 1998|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

In a ruling that marks a victory for the gun industry, a California jury found yesterday that Accokeek-based Beretta USA was not negligent in the accidental shooting death of a teen-ager.

Dix vs. Beretta marked the first jury trial to test gun manufacturers' accountability for failing to "child-proof" guns, according to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

The verdict came as the cities of Chicago and New Orleans have sued gun makers, seeking millions of dollars to compensate for gun violence. Other states, including Maryland, are moving toward requiring handguns to be child-proof or "personalized" so that only the intended user can fire them.

Jeff Reh, general counsel for Beretta USA, said yesterday that the case "means that juries understand that the individual gun owner is responsible for the safe storage of their products."

Kenzo Dix, 15, was killed in 1994 by a friend who was playing with his father's Beretta 92 Compact L handgun. The friend, Michael Soe, 14, had removed a loaded ammunition magazine from the pistol, but a cartridge remained in the gun's chamber when he pulled the trigger.

Dix's parents sued, arguing that the gun should have been made child-proof, or "personalized" so only the owner could fire it. Lynn and Griffin Dix, who had sought $7.5 million in damages, also argued that the gun should have had features that clearly warned of the remaining cartridge. Beretta countered that Soe's father was to blame because he left the gun loaded and unlocked.

Beretta USA, the U.S. subsidiary of the Italian company that has been producing firearms since 1526, argued in the case that a family without an infant car seat could not blame car manufacturers for a infant's injuries in the event of an accident.

"In that case, GM would not be held liable for an accident involving a child," Reh said.

The Alameda County Superior Court jury voted in Beretta's favor 9-3 on the issues of whether the company's product was defective and whether the product's benefits outweighed its risks, said plaintiffs' lawyer Nancy Hersh. The jury voted 7-5 for Beretta on whether the warnings in the owner's manual were adequate.

"They felt the company had fulfilled its obligations and it was up to the owner of the product to handle it in a safe manner," Hersh said. "Remember, with the tobacco litigation it took 30 years for them to win. This is a loss but it's a beginning. I think the next case will be won."

Reh said yesterday that legislators, politicians and gun-control advocates who are calling for "smart guns" or "personalized guns" have the mistaken belief that the requisite technology is available.

"They have not talked to the industry about the feasibility or advisability" of smart guns, Reh said. "We have been looking at it for 10 years. And we've come to the conclusion that existing designs are unsafe and could cause an increase in accidents. We presented this case to the jury in California."

Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, in Washington, said the loss in the Dix case will not have a bearing on New Orleans' recently filed case against gun makers.

"We believe it will actually be easier to prevail when a city is the plaintiff," he said. "It's more difficult with a city to point to an irresponsible gun owner. The problem with this case is you had a very reckless gun owner."

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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