For Release: March 18, 1996
Bill Would Protect Gun Dealers Who Knowingly Sell to Criminals and Minors
Bill Would Cut Off Manufacturer’s Liability for Notoriously Defective Handgun
If the U.S. Senate votes tomorrow to pass the grossly misnamed “Common Sense Product Liability Legal Reform Act of 1996” two of the primary beneficiaries will be unscrupulous gun dealers and the manufacturer of one of the most dangerous handguns ever produced, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) warned today. The vote on the H.R. 956 conference report compromise legislation restricting the rights of consumers injured by defective products is expected to be on Tuesday, March 19th, 1996.
“A vote for the H.R. 956 conference report is a vote against gun control and the victims of firearms death and injury gun owning and non-gun owning alike,” said Kristen Rand, director of federal policy at the Violence Policy Center and primary author of a new joint study by the VPC and Public Citizen detailing the effect tort restrictions would have on firearms safety and gun control. The 74-page study, Lawyers, Guns, and Money: The Impact of Tort Restrictions on Firearms Safety and Gun Control is available from the Violence Policy Center.
The conference report contains two very significant changes from the bill originally passed by the Senate that will make it even more difficult for victims of gun violence and defective firearms to recover fair compensation.
The first is a change to the product seller provision that would protect gun dealers who knowingly sell firearms to convicted felons, minors, or other high-risk individuals. The second is a change to the statute of repose which would absolve firearm manufacturers from any liability for guns manufactured prior to 1981.
The product seller provision of the H.R. 956 conference report makes a significant change from the Senate bill in the treatment of ‘negligent entrustment’ cases a theory used to hold liable gun dealers who knowingly sell firearms to high-risk individuals such as minors and felons who then use the weapon to inflict death or injury. The conference report allows such unscrupulous dealers to benefit from the caps on punitive damages, limitations on joint and several liability, and all of the other restrictions in the bill. Moreover, the vast majority of gun dealers would most likely benefit from the “small business” cap limiting punitive damages to a maximum of $250,000 for businesses with fewer than 25 employees.
Adds Rand, “It is entirely inappropriate to include actions for ‘negligent entrustment’ within the scope of the products bill. These cases do not allege a defect in manufacture or design what is traditionally thought of as a typical ‘product liability’ action but rather allege simple negligence in the transfer of a dangerous commodity such as firearms or explosives. The product liability bill should not be used as a vehicle to protect unscrupulous gun dealers.”
The conference report also shortens from 20 to 15 years the “statute of repose” a bar on recovery for older products. The bill also makes this draconian bar on recovery applicable to virtually all goods including firearms. The conference report expands application of the statute of repose from only durable goods used in the workplace to all durable goods including any product with a “life expectancy of 3 or more years.” As a result the bill now sweeps in all products with a life expectancy of three or more years which would include all firearms.
This change arbitrarily cuts off the liability of many gun manufacturers and leaves firearm owners unprotected against latent manufacturing or design defects that may not become manifest for decades.
Under current law, in some states consumers can recover for injuries caused by an older firearm when the victim can prove that the injuries were caused by a defect in the design or manufacture of the gun that was present when the firearm was purchased.
According to Rand, “The best example of the fairness of allowing consumers to recover for injuries caused by old guns is Sturm, Ruger & Company’s Old Model single action revolver perhaps the most dangerously defective gun ever manufactured.” More than 600 people, including children, have been killed or injured by accidental discharges from Old Models. The revolvers were manufactured from 1953 until 1972, after which the design of the gun was modified to include a transfer bar safety. However, by the time the gun was redesigned, 1.5 million revolvers were in the hands of consumers. Nevertheless, it was 10 years before Sturm, Ruger took any action to remedy the hazard presented by the Old Models. In 1982 the company offered to retrofit Old Models with a transfer bar safety, but by the beginning of 1993, only 130,573 had been retrofitted. The company still distributes flyers telling owners of Old Model revolvers, “Ruger wants to give you, and install FREE, a unique new improvement.” Despite Ruger’s knowledge of the defect in the design of the Old Model, the company still refuses to issue a recall of the guns.
As recently as January 1996, an Old Model killed Richard Jaramillo, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, when it fell to the ground and discharged. The same handgun had killed Jaramillo’s cousin, Bernie Trujillo, three years earlier. The revolver discharged when it was struck against the tailgate of a truck. The bullet struck and killed Trujillo, who was standing five feet away. If the 15-year statute of repose becomes law, families like Mr. Jaramillo’s would be barred from filing a lawsuit against Sturm, Ruger.
Under the 15-year time limit established by the conference report, Sturm, Ruger would be immune from any future lawsuits filed by consumers injured by an Old Model.
Concludes Rand, “This bill is nothing less than a protection act for unscrupulous gun dealers and the manufacturers of defective firearms. The U.S. Senate should put the health and safety of the U.S. public gun-owning and non-gun owning alike over the cynical interests of the firearms industry.”