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The Nation

Cincinnati's Suit Against Gun Makers Is Reinstated

Law: Ohio's top court reverses an appellate ruling, saying the city had sufficient facts to pursue its drive to recoup violence losses.

June 13, 2002|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Gun control advocates were cheered Wednesday when the Ohio Supreme Court reinstated a lawsuit filed by the city of Cincinnati against firearm manufacturers in an effort to recoup the cost of gun-related violence.

In a 4-3 ruling, the high court reversed an appellate court ruling of two years ago in which judges held that the city could not recover costs incurred from criminal and accidental shootings.

Hailing the state Supreme Court decision, Washington-based gun control attorney Dennis Henigan said, ''Without a doubt, this is the most significant legal victory so far'' in a four-year campaign by cities and counties across the nation to hold gun manufacturers liable for gun-related deaths and injuries.

Gun industry representatives noted that at least nine similar lawsuits in other jurisdictions have been dismissed and that top courts in Florida, Connecticut and Louisiana have ruled in favor of the industry.

The Ohio action, in fact, does not guarantee the ultimate success of Cincinnati's suit. Justice Francis Sweeney explained that the court majority, in reinstating the lawsuit, decided only that the city did have enough facts to pursue its claims.

''While we do not predict the outcome of the case, we would be remiss if we did not recognize the importance of allowing'' this type of lawsuit to go past the initial stages, Sweeney said.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and two other members disagreed. Moyer said the alleged injuries that Cincinnati suffered were too far removed from the conduct of gun manufacturers to give the city the right to sue.

But Henigan, legal director of the nonprofit Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is helping to support more than two dozen lawsuits against gun makers, said the high court ruling effectively ''upholds virtually all of the claims brought by Cincinnati against the industry.''

He said the ruling also would affect a parallel lawsuit by Cleveland that has been moving through the courts since 1998 and survived a dismissal motion two years ago.

Attorneys for the industry told the state Supreme Court that a ruling favoring the city's position could make manufacturers of other legal products equally liable.

''Alcoholic beverage manufacturers, who also produce a legal product, would be held liable for misuse of alcohol,'' said James P. Dorr, who represents Sturm, Ruger & Co., one of the defendants. ''The same thing with automobile manufacturers who have a generalized awareness that their cars are going to be involved in accidents.''

When cities and counties first began filing lawsuits against the firearm industry four years ago, some gun control advocates hoped that the nation's courts would act quickly to help reduce the gun-related violence that has plagued urban areas.

Similar to state lawsuits against tobacco companies, the litigation was aimed at recovering millions of dollars in medical and law enforcement costs resulting from gun-related violence. Plaintiffs also sought to force firearm makers to produce safer guns and to keep them from children and criminals.

But now that 32 cities and counties have initiated lawsuits, it is clear that success, if it is achieved, will come slowly.

In general, the complaints charge that gun manufacturers, distributors and trade associations are supplying firearms to an illegitimate market, creating a public and private nuisance, and failing to incorporate adequate warnings and technologically feasible safety features, such as childproof locks.

Results have been mixed. Some complaints have been dismissed outright.

For example, an Illinois judge rejected a $433-million suit filed by the city of Chicago against 38 firearm industry defendants. Cook County Circuit Judge Stephen A. Schiller ruled that police and prosecutors, not the courts, could better address the problem of illegal gun sales.

Robert Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry's major trade group, noted that gun makers already are governed by federal and state regulations meant to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.

In a separate Illinois action resulting from a police shooting, a state appellate court ruled earlier this year that gun makers and dealers could be sued for distributing firearms in a way that made it easy for criminals and juveniles to obtain them.

Lawsuits filed by 12 California cities and counties, led by Los Angeles and San Francisco, have survived industry motions for dismissal and are proceeding through pretrial discovery, with gun manufacturers required to produce thousands of pages of corporate documents.

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