033: Taking Dead Aim

Stella Case No. 033, Originally Published: 22 January 2003

After the Washington D.C. area “Beltway Snipers” were caught, the public search effort turned its attentions elsewhere: for deep pockets to endow the bank accounts of the victims and their families.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington D.C., in concert with a Seattle law firm, filed suit in Pierce County (Wash.) Superior Court “on behalf” of two of the victims’ families against Bushmaster Firearms Inc., the manufacturer of the rifle used in the shootings, and the Tacoma, Wash., gun store where the rifle was apparently stolen from. Other family members are “expected” to join the suit, if not file their own separate actions.

Attorney Paul Luvera said his “groundbreaking lawsuit” was absolutely not an attack on the rights of lawful gun owners or the Second Amendment of the Constitution. The gun manufacturer disagrees. “This lawsuit is really an attempt by the well-financed anti-gun groups there to push their agenda,” said a Bushmaster spokesman. “It’s an intentionally frivolous lawsuit,” agreed the gun store’s attorney, “designed more for publicity than substance.”

Guns have plenty of lawful purposes; how is a gun manufacturer liable for the illegal misuse of their stolen product? The actions of Bushmaster and Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply constitute a “public nuisance,” says the suit. According to that theory they should have also sued Chevrolet, since the automaker did nothing — nothing at all — to stop the murderers from drilling a hole in the trunk lid of their Caprice sedan to convert it into a mobile sniper’s nest.

Source

  • “Families of 2 sniper victims file suit”, Seattle Times, 17 January 2003

Case Status

Despite the contention that the suit was “designed more for publicity than substance,” both Bushmaster and the store settled out of court after mediation. In what their lawyers describe as a “landmark” victory, Bushmaster Firearms agreed to pay $550,000, and Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, Wash., agreed to pay $2 million.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which pressed the suit, crowed that the settlement “sends a loud message to all gun manufacturers.” A Bushmaster lawyer begged to differ: “The Brady Center lawsuit was intended to put Bushmaster out of business or make it change its business practices,” says attorney Steve Fogg. “Neither goal was accomplished.” The company’s insurance will pay the entire settlement.

Elapsed time from suit to settlement: about 17 months.

Update Source: “Gun Dealer and Manufacturer Settle in Sniper Lawsuit”, Seattle Times, 9 September 2004

Letters

There was a ton of mail about the McDonalds (et al) lawsuit. I’ll pick just a couple….

Tim in Pennsylvania: “As ‘Dean Wormer’ pontificated in National Lampoon’s ‘Animal House’, ‘Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.’ Perhaps [fast food plaintiff] Caesar Barber needs to start drinking; he seems to have a lock on the other two. While he comes off as a useless [human being], it’s the attorney enthusiastically representing him who stands out as a mammoth pile of sleaze. One can only wonder how anyone so devoid of decency can sleep at night.”

Bill (a “smoker and former fat guy”) in Ontario, Canada: “If a reckless disregard for your own health and gross stupidity are grounds for a lawsuit, we as a society are in deep trouble. Where is the honour in winning such a case?”

Maybe the self-described “victims” hope they can buy some honor with their settlement money. They’re wrong.

In the last issue I editorialized on why it’s not just lawyers that need reform — the problem is systemic. “Any reform will also have to involve the courts, judges, plaintiffs, legislation and — yes — society in general, which has been taught that there is honor in victimhood. It’s so easy to be a ‘victim’ that people embrace it rather than even consider that they may have some fault or responsibility in any given situation. It’s a symptom of a sick system, and all the parts need adjustment.”

Suz in Indiana responded: “Isn’t it strange that there should be honor in considering such people ‘victims’ for spilling hot coffee on themselves, being shot with a gun and smoking and getting cancer? Yet, my cousin was murdered by her boyfriend and this man walked using loopholes in the legal system. The rapist and murderer who took my friend’s sister’s life among others and admitted he did it and even led the police to the bodies is being taken care of by society for the rest of his life. So my family, and her family who are kin to real victims don’t see the criminals that did these things being punished. (The one in jail for life is hardly punished as they who have committed terrible crimes still ‘have rights’ and use those very rights to sue the system if it does not provide them with whatever they desire.) So society has taught us that people are only victims if they do something stupid, but the real victims are not honored nor even recognized, and the criminals who made them victims in the first place have rights and are treated with kid gloves.”

A law student says one of the writers of the letters in this space are presenting an impossible obstacle:

Jeff in New York: Such letter authors “apparently believe there is no such thing as an ethical attorney. If, perception-wise, we have three strikes against us already the moment we pass the Bar, what possible motivation could we have to do as you have asked us so often and so eloquently to do, act as gatekeepers to the system? What purpose is there to preserving whatever positive reputation we think we have if in reality we have none at all — if when we plead ‘stereotyping’ we’re simply slapped down as blind to our own faults? What else is left to do besides retreat into our own practices, act as ethically as we feel we can, and ignore all the other lawyers’ behavior?

An overwhelming majority of attorney ethical violations are reported by attorneys. State bar associations hear thousands of such cases every year because attorneys reported them. To what end could the state bars possibly require that every law student take a professional responsibility class in order to earn a JD if they don’t believe that some of us will actually be listening? I love your publication, and it’s not an easy one for a law student to love. I appreciate that you like to publish letters with a variety of viewpoints. But I’m going to try to do my part to keep the dialogue as balanced and fair as possible.”

To be sure, Jeff, I depend on the various viewpoints in the letters as a whole to help produce that balance. Thanks for writing.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

We definitely have a problem with guns in this country, but I really don’t think this is the way to fix that problem. With the collapse of the NRA, maybe there will be some rational progress. But I won’t be holding my breath.

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1 Comment on “033: Taking Dead Aim

  1. Unfortunately for Bushmaster, their product was also chosen by the shooter in the Sandy Hook school incident. They have been so inundated with legal wrangling ever since that they are on the point of bankruptcy.

    While I understand the desire to “do something” after such incidents, I don’t think we are any closer to solving the underlying problem when we punish companies that are engaged in legal commerce if their products are used illegally. If we as a society believe that banning the manufacture and sale of such products, there is a legislative process for that. I don’t believe that even that would be an effective solution to the problem, but at least it would be true to the traditions of our country.

    In my view it is not the gun, but the intent of the shooter that is the issue. Of course that’s where it becomes very difficult. That requires a very long term solution. So the question becomes, what do we do in the short term while we work on a long term fix? I don’t have the perfect answer to that, and I haven’t heard one from anyone else either. All we can do is keep thinking and, as you so often say, applying uncommon sense.

    I am encouraged that despite the media frenzy surrounding such shooting incidents that causes a distorted view of the problem, incidents of gun violence are actually statistically less common now than they were 25 years ago. Perhaps we are making progress, but it is frustratingly slow.

    Reply

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