Woman not entitled to damages in son's death, court rules

Panel says company not liable because boy had access to handgun

April 26, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The mother of a 3-year-old East Baltimore boy who fatally shot himself with his father's handgun cannot collect damages under Maryland's product liability law because his father had improperly stored the weapon under a mattress, the Court of Special Appeals ruled yesterday.

Affirming an October 1999 decision by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Evelyn Omega Cannon, the state's second-highest court rejected claims that the handgun 3-year-old Jordan Garris accidentally fired in 1999 was defective because it did not have a trigger lock.

Jordan's mother, Melissa M. Halliday, sued gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. in July 1999, a month after her son shot himself in the head with his father's 9 mm Ruger handgun. Jordan died two days later. In her lawsuit, Halliday alleged the gun maker was responsible for her son's death because the gun was not childproof.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section about a Court of Special Appeals ruling in a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer incorrectly stated the number of children killed each year in accidental shootings. Attorney Andrew D. Freeman said that between 50 and 100 young children die each year and that thousands are injured. The Sun regrets the error.

Yesterday's opinion said that even if the absence of a trigger lock did make the gun defective, any product liability claim would be defeated by the fact that Jordan's father, Clifton Garris, had misused the weapon by improperly hiding it under a mattress, instead of locking it out of reach of his young son.

In a dissenting opinion, two of the court's 10 judges said the decision would carve out a "gun exception" to Maryland's product liability law.

"I cannot subscribe to a strict products liability formula that assigns the least liability to the manufacturers of the most dangerous products," Judge Andrew L. Sonner wrote in the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Judge Ellen L. Hollander.

"Handgun users and their children should not be deprived of the same standards of quality and safety afforded to users of every other product because of this court's reluctance to hold the [gun maker] liable for the P-89 pistol it placed within the stream of commerce," Sonner wrote.

Baltimore attorney Andrew D. Freeman, who represents Halliday, said he would appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals. Freeman said the courts should consider that thousands of children die each year because of improperly stored handguns that could be made safer with trigger locks.

"We acknowledge that the father was negligent. He's got to live with that for the rest of his life," Freeman said. "But children shouldn't have to die for the foreseeable actions of their parents."

Freeman brought a similar suit in 1999 against Lorcin Engineering Co. in a separate incident in which a Park Heights boy shot himself under the left eye with a Lorcin semiautomatic pistol. Nino Jacobs, who was 6 at the time, survived. That case stalled after Lorcin filed for bankruptcy protection in California.

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