Judge Dismisses Personal Injury Case Against Gun Manufacturer
A federal court has dismissed a personal injury lawsuit directed at the gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. The plaintiff was handling a gun when it accidentally went off, amputating his finger. The plaintiff’s claim is based on the idea that the gun had a mechanical defect and the powerhouse gun manufacturer should be held responsible.
Product liability refers to a manufacturer or seller being held liable for placing a defective product into the hands of the consumer. The vast majority of product liability cases are determined at the state level. Product liability claims can be sought out under the theories of negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty. Under negligence, the plaintiff would have to show that the manufacturer, in this case, Smith and Wesson:
- had a duty of care owed to the plaintiff,
- there was a breach of this duty, and
- this breach actually caused the injury.
In plain English, Smith and Wesson obviously have a duty to ensure that their firearms do not have mechanical defects. The difficult part here is being able to show that when plaintiff was handling the gun, it was a defect rather than mismanagement by the plaintiff that actually caused the injury. The Court ultimately held that the injury was not caused by a defect. Smith & Wesson are not liable. Strict liability and breach of warranty would probably not apply here either.
The Benefit of the Doubt
The point of all this is that it is quite difficult to show that a manufacturer of a product can be held liable. There are some circumstances where benefit will be given to plaintiff. Under a doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur, the burden of proof will shift to the defendant to show that they are not liable. It makes the path easier for the plaintiff. However, this doctrine is rarely invoked. For it to come into effect, the injury must have occurred because of someone’s negligence.
At the end of the day, it is quite difficult to pin the blame on the manufacturer because they are so far removed from the actual incident — an actual defect must be present before they are held accountable. Even if the plaintiff is somehow successful on his claim, Smith & Wesson could invoke comparative or contributory negligence as a defense. Based on the facts presented, the plaintiff was somewhat careless with the handling of the gun. This is not to say that there was not a defect but that there very well could have been mishandling of the firearm.
For all intents and purposes, unless the legal framework is reworked to give more deference to the plaintiff, manufacturers will win the majority of product liability cases. As mentioned earlier, there are so many chains of distribution involved in the product that it will be quite difficult to reach the manufacturer who has no involvement in the actual cause of action.