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Officer's Case Against Gun Maker Still Alive

Justice: State Supreme Court agrees to review negligence suit brought by victim of '97 North Hollywood shootout.

November 21, 2000|From The Associated Press

The state Supreme Court has agreed to review a lawsuit filed against a gun maker by a police officer wounded in the 1997 North Hollywood shootout.

The lawsuit by former officer Martin Whitfield claims negligence by Heckler & Koch Inc., which made the gun used by assailant Emil Matasareanu, attorney John P. McNicholas said Monday.

Matasareanu and Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. robbed a Bank of America and then died in one of the most dramatic shootouts in city history. Wearing body armor and firing automatic weapons, they wounded 11 officers and six civilians.

Matasareanu's weapon was a Heckler & Koch .308-caliber semiautomatic assault rifle that was modified to be fully automatic, firing armor-piercing bullets at a rate of more than 100 rounds per minute, McNicholas said.

Whitfield was struck four times with bullets that first passed through his patrol cruiser, which was riddled with nearly 50 bullets, according to court filings.

McNicholas said he believes makers of such weapons should be held to the same liability standards as tobacco companies.

"The gun manufacturers totally disassociate themselves from any responsibility. . . . They've always blamed the user of the weapon, other than the weapon," McNicholas said. "What accountability should weapons manufacturers be held to? Certainly more than they are willing to accept at this point, and the way you get their attention is by litigation and large verdicts."

The lawsuit by Whitfield, who suffered serious hip and leg wounds, also names the estates of the assailants. The portion targeting Heckler & Koch has been rejected twice by lower courts which said its scope was too broad.

In May 1999, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge said that while the action was well-intentioned "it would create a virtual yellow pages for lawsuits."

The state 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed that decision in August.

"We believe it would be unwise to adopt a broad new theory of recovery, which would ultimately make courts and juries the arbiters of the merit of every consumer product in the market," the appellate court ruled. "We further believe such issues should be resolved by the appropriate legislative bodies."

The California Supreme Court agreed last week to review that decision. If it rules in Whitfield's favor, the matter would be returned to the trial court. The officer retired on permanent disability and now lives in Indiana, McNicholas said.

A call to Heckler & Koch's Sterling, Va., headquarters was not immediately returned.

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