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By JOEL STASHENKO, Associated Press
Last updated: 12:15 p.m., Thursday, April 26, 2001

Court says gun manufacturers not liable

ALBANY -- Handgun manufacturers cannot be held liable for shooting deaths and injuries suffered by seven people because of the supposedly negligent way the weapons were marketed and distributed, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

The Court of Appeals decided 7-0 that the chain linking gun makers with the seven individuals is too tenuous legally to ascribe liability to the manufacturers.

At the least, links in that chain include the manufacturer, federally licensed distributors or wholesalers and at least one retailer, the court said in a ruling written by Judge Richard Wesley.

``The chain most often includes subsequent legal purchasers or even a thief,'' Wesley said.

With every gunshot victim or their survivors a potential litigant against gun manufacturers, more evidence of negligence on the part of gun makers toward gun violence victims must be established than was involved in the matter before the court, Wesley said.

The court's ruling likely dooms verdicts won in federal court in New York City against 15 handgun manufacturers for failing to use reasonable care in the distribution of their guns. The claims were brought by seven victims of gun violence or their survivors.

Nine gun makers were found to have ``proximately'' caused the deaths of two of the victims, but no damages were awarded in those cases. A jury did award damages against three defendants, American Arms, Beretta USA and Taurus International Manufacturing.

In one of those cases, Stephen Fox, shot by a friend and permanently disabled, won a &#364 million judgment on behalf of himself and his mother.

Gun manufacturers appealed. A federal appeals court hearing the cases asked the state Court of Appeals to clarify whether New York law supports a negligent marketing claim in the case of handgun makers.

Wesley noted in his ruling that the Court of Appeals has historically been cautious about extending liability to individuals or companies for the conduct of others. The court has done so only in limited circumstances, such as making parents liable for some actions of their children, Wesley said.

``This judicial resistance to the expansion of duty grows out of practical concerns both about potentially limitless liability and about the unfairness of imposing liability for the acts of another,'' Wesley said.

Extending liability to gun manufacturers for negligent marketing practices would be a huge step, the judge said, potentially encompassing everyone who has been injured by handguns or the survivors of people who have been killed.

Wesley said lawyers for the gunshot victims in these cases alluded to ``broad'' and ``general'' ways that gun manufacturers are liable for handgun injuries, but they failed to show specifically how their sales and marketing led to their guns getting into the wrong hands.

A ``more tangible'' direct link is needed to show how the gun makers contributed to the injuries of gunshot victims and that the manufacturers ``were realistically in a position to prevent the wrongs,'' Wesley wrote.

His ruling left the door open a crack to future similar claims, however. Wesley said while the cases before the court failed, ``tort law is ever changing.'' It is conceivable that negligent handgun marketing could be proven in a different case with a different set of circumstances, he said.

``This case challenges us to rethink traditional notions of duty, liability and causation,'' he wrote.

The court Thursday also found that it was not acceptable to ascribe a ``market share'' of liability to gun makers. Under that practice, all manufacturers of a product are assessed damages according to the share of the market they enjoy.

In the Fox case, the gun involved in the shooting was never found and the shooter could not recall what brand it was, court papers showed. The federal court thought that justified spreading liability to all gun makers.

Wesley said it was inappropriate to extend liability across the board, however.
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