High court says gun maker not liable in death

Faulty storage, not lack of lock, blamed

boy, 3, shot himself

`There was no malfunction'

Annapolis

March 07, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

In a blow to gun-control advocates, the Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a gun maker cannot be held liable for the accidental death of an East Baltimore toddler, who shot himself with his father's handgun, because the gun was improperly kept under a mattress.

The ruling rejects the contention by the mother of 3-year-old Jordan Garris that the Ruger semiautomatic pistol should be considered defective because it lacked a lock to make it childproof. The argument by Melissa M. Halliday failed in two lower courts and was blocked from going before a Baltimore jury.

Instead, judges of the state's highest court noted that the gun worked fine in June 1999 when the boy accidentally killed himself.

"There was no malfunction of the gun; regrettably, it worked exactly as it was designed and intended to work and as any ordinary consumer would have expected it to work," the majority concluded in its 6-1 ruling. "What caused this tragedy was the carelessness of Jordan's father in leaving the weapon and the magazine in places where the child was able to find them, in contravention not only of common sense but of multiple warnings given to him at the time of purchase."

"I think this demonstrates that people who bring handguns into their homes have to take responsibility for the safety of the children in their homes," said Paul F. Strain, lawyer for Sturm, Ruger & Co.

He said the ruling probably means another Maryland case against Sturm, Ruger that is pending in Baltimore Circuit Court will not be viable, though gun-control advocates said that may not be the case.

Lawrence G. Keane, vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun makers and retailers, hailed yesterday's ruling.

"It is not correct to try to fix blame on the manufacturer," he said.

However, he said marketplace demands are leading manufacturers to offer guns with built-in safeguards.

Halliday's lawyer contended because accidents like Jordan's are forseeable, Sturm, Ruger should sell only products with the safeguards, just as makers of meat-slicers and saws have safety devices on their products.

"We tried and, at least in Maryland, we failed," said Andrew D. Freeman, Halliday's lawyer.

Similar lawsuits, filed in conjunction with advocacy organizations - this case was done with the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence - are either in the works or pending.

"From a public health perspective, this is an unfortunate decision, because litigation like this, if it's allowed to proceed by courts, can provide manufacturers of dangerous products like guns necessary economic incentives to make their product safer," said Jon S. Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

Writing for the majority, Judge Alan M. Wilner said the legislature has taken an active role in gun regulation, choosing not to place the burden of liability squarely on the manufacturer. He noted that a dozen bills dealing with handgun safety and damage suits are pending this session.

Like the opinion last year by the state's intermediate appeals court, yesterday's decision by the highest court was not unanimous. Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote that she agreed with the two dissenting judges of the Court of Special Appeals, who feared the majority ruling would wrongly create an exception for handguns under Maryland's product liability law.

Starting next year, Maryland will require new guns sold in the state to have safety locks. But that does not detract from yesterday's ruling, said University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer, who agreed with Battaglia. Weapons that are resold or bought out-of-state do not fall under that law, he said.

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