A widow’s wrongful death suit against the Remington Arms Co. has been reinstated after a divided Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said sufficient circumstantial evidence pointed to a defect that could affect as many as 2 million rifles. The court ruled that the Plaintiff’s expert testimony that any of the company’s Model 700 .243 caliber bolt-action rifles made before 1975 are susceptible to inadvertent discharge was enough to put the case before the jury under South Dakota law.
The Plaintiff’s husband was killed in a hunting accident by a Remington rifle, with a known defect. The appeals court reversed a lower court ruling. On Nov. 9, 2008, Lanny O’Neal was shot and killed when his Remington Model 700 .243-caliber bolt-action rifle, which he had loaned to a friend during a deer-hunting expedition near Eagle Butte, S.D., discharged when its safety lever was moved, without the trigger being moved.
Ms. O’Neal filed a products liability wrongful death lawsuit against the Madison, N.C.-based firm. The gun had been manufactured in 1971, and the company knew as early as 1979 that there was a defect in the rifle’s trigger that could lead to its firing without having the trigger pulled, according to the court’s ruling.
Remington contended, however, that Ms. O’Neal could not prove that the gun had not been altered or modified after its manufacture. Mr. O’Neal’s stepfather, from whom he had obtained the gun, said it had not been altered since he obtained it in the mid-1980s. Ms. O’Neal had asked a friend to destroy the gun because it reminded her of her husband’s death.
The U.S. District Court granted Remington summary judgment dismissing the case, on the grounds that Ms. O’Neal could not show her husband’s death was not the result of a post-manufacture alteration or modification to the rifle. A divided appellate court reversed that ruling and reinstated the case. The opinion stated:
South Dakota law allows a plaintiff in a products liability suit to use circumstantial evidence to prove that a defective product caused an injury, and that the injury existed when the product left the defendant’s control.
The court said evidence presented shows that had the gun been altered, “it is highly unlikely the rifle could have been used as many times as it was over the span of the next 20-plus years without incident.” The dissenting opinion in the case said because Ms. O’Neal had the rifle destroyed before the lawsuit was filed, she cannot prove the defect that was present when the gun left the manufacturing plant in 1971 killed her husband 37 years later.
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