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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 14, 2014

D.S.D. Widow fails to prove rifle defective when it left manufacturer’s control

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The widow of a hunter who was killed when a rifle used by another hunter discharged accidentally failed to prove that a defect existed at the time the rifle left the manufacturers’ control or that the rifle had not been altered, the federal district court in South Dakota ruled, granting the rifle makers’ motion for summary judgment. The court also rejected the widow’s collateral estoppel argument (O’Neal v. Remington Arms Co., LLC, March 13, 2014, Schreier, K.).

Background. Lanny O’Neal loaned his Remington Model 700, .243 caliber bolt action rifle to a friend who, in preparation to shoot a deer, moved the rifle’s safety to the “off” position. The rifle discharged and O’Neal was shot and killed. His widow filed a products liability against Remington Arms Co. and E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co., the manufacturers of the rifle, alleging strict liability product defect and failure-to-warn claims, as well as claims for negligent design and manufacture and negligent failure to warn. The widow moved for summary judgment on the product defect claims, arguing that issue preclusion applied. The manufacturers also moved for summary judgment on all claims because, among other arguments, there was no evidence that a defect existed at the time the rifle left their control or that the rifle had not undergone a substantial, unforeseeable change after leaving their control

Issue preclusion. In support of her claim that collateral estoppel—also known as “issue preclusion”—barred the manufacturers from relitigating the issue of whether the Model 700  rifle was defective, the widow cited three cases in which judgments were entered against Remington Arms. A review by the court of the three decisions revealed that the issues decided in those cases were not identical to the issue presented in this case or that there was no final judgment on the merits. Because the issue of whether the Model 700 rifle defective was not actually litigated in those cases, the court concluded that issue preclusion did not stop litigation of whether the Model 700 rifle involved in this case was defective. Thus, the widow’s summary judgment motion was denied.

Proof of defective condition. The manufacturers’ argued that because the widow no longer had the rifle, which she asked a friend to destroy before she instituted this litigation, she could not demonstrate that a design or manufacturing defect existed at the time the rifle left the manufacturer’s control or that there had been no change to the rifle, thus making proof of causation impossible. Although the widow provided evidence that the rifle had not been modified or altered from the time the rifle came into possession of her husband’s stepfather in the mid-1980s, she was unable to provide information on the history of the rifle prior to that time. In addition, there was no evidence that anyone inspected the rifle at any time after the stepfather acquired it that would help establish whether it had ever been modified or altered. The rifle had been manufactured in 1971 and over one-fourth of its existence was unaccounted for. Thus, the widow failed to satisfy her burden of proving that the rifle was in substantially the same condition as when it left the manufacturer’s control and that the rifle’s condition was a legal cause of her husband’s injuries.

The case number is 11-4182-KES.

Attorneys: John P. Blackburn (Blackburn & Stevens, Prof. L.L.C.) for Lanny O'Neal. James Ellis Moore (Woods, Fuller, Shultz & Smith, PC) for Remington Arms Co., L.L.C., Sporting Goods Properties, Inc. and E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co.

Companies: Remington Arms Co., L.L.C.; Sporting Goods Properties, Inc.; E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co.

MainStory: TopStory DefensesLiabilityNews DesignManufacturingNews WeaponsFirearmsNews SouthDakotaNews

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