Survivors of four victims killed in last year's bloody rampage at a San Francisco high-rise filed lawsuits Wednesday against manufacturers of the semiautomatic weapons used in the shootings.
The novel suits, a new tactic in the war against guns, are similar to legal actions brought by smokers against cigarette companies. The lawsuits charge that the gun manufacturers were negligent in selling the weapons to the public because they have no legitimate civilian use.
Gian Luigi Ferri, the assailant in the July 1 shootings, killed eight people and wounded six at the law firm of Pettit & Martin before killing himself. Ferri left a rambling letter blaming food additives, lawyers and others for his problems.
The survivors' suits are being handled by four of San Francisco's major law firms, working for free with the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, chaired by Sarah Brady, wife of former Ronald Reagan aide Jim Brady.
"If we didn't think we could win this suit, we wouldn't be doing it," said Dennis Henigan, an attorney for the center.
Two similar lawsuits filed in Louisiana and Connecticut against gun makers in 1989 failed, but Henigan said the California case will fare better for a variety of reasons, including new statistics that he said show such guns are disproportionately used in crime.
"It's a tough lawsuit but not without merit and one worth trying," said Gene Erbin, a lawyer familiar with gun liability issues and counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. "It is going to be very, very expensive. The manufacturers and the NRA (National Rifle Assn.) will defend it strenuously."
He said a San Francisco court probably would be receptive to the claims. "I am very confident this will not be dismissed," Erbin said. "If they want to, this will go to trial."
UCLA law professor Gary Schwartz said the law firms handling the case are prestigious and would not bring suit "unless they had done enough work to convince themselves that the theories are not frivolous."
"I think it is a long shot, but it is not ludicrous," Schwartz said.
The suits allege that the sale of the TEC DC-9 assault pistol to the public constitutes an "abnormally dangerous activity" and that the manufacturer should be held strictly liable for damages to those injured by it.
Selling such assault guns is negligent, the suits contend, because they have no legitimate civilian use and are designed for crime.
A gun industry lobbyist said the suits would fail, but acknowledged that they posed a "little different twist" from previous litigation against gun manufacturers.
Richard Feldman, lobbyist for the American Shooting Sports Council, said the guns are used in sport for target practice.
"I own four of them, and I like to shoot them," said Feldman, speaking on behalf of two manufacturers named in the suit. "They are fun guns to shoot."
Trying to hold the weapon's manufacturers responsible would be akin to forcing car makers to pay damages for injuries caused by drunk drivers, he said.
"Suing the equipment manufacturers won't do anything but make lawyers richer and make the families of these victims a continuing part of the tragedy," he said.
Survivors of the dead attended a news conference by the gun control group to announce the lawsuits in the building where their loved ones were killed.
Steve Sposato brought his 20-month-old daughter, Meghan, dressed in a flowered dress and white tights and sandals. Her mother, Jody, 30, was a client at the law firm and was shot in the back through the glass of a conference room where she was giving a deposition. Meghan, their only child, was 10 months old at the time.
"We were hoping to have more children," said Steve Sposato, 37, a telecommunications engineer, as his chubby, blue-eyed daughter squirmed next to him in a pink stroller.
Marilyn Merrill, whose husband, Mike, was killed, said "the trauma is impossible to erase."
"Recently my 4-year-old daughter, Kristen, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up," Merrill said. "I told her I wasn't quite sure but that I may have to go back to work soon. Kristen became hysterical and told me she didn't want me to do that, because if I went to work I might not come back--like her daddy didn't come back."
Named as defendants are Intratec, which manufactured the two guns used by Ferri; USA Magazines, which manufactured the high-capacity ammunition magazines; Hell-Fire Systems, which made the trigger system, and Super Pawn, the Las Vegas store where Ferri purchased one of the assault weapons.
A spokeswoman for Super Pawn said the company's president was unavailable for comment. Hell-Fire Systems could not be reached.
The survivors seek unspecified damages. Henigan said the lawsuits were filed separately because each survivor has different damages, based on such factors as the amount of income they lost because of the deaths.
"This is an industry that for too long has been able to wash its hands for of all responsibility for gun violence on the grounds that somebody else pulled the trigger," Henigan said.