The firearms industry won an important legal victory Monday in a closely watched case in Oakland, where a jury found Beretta USA not liable in the accidental shooting death of a 15-year-old Berkeley youth.
The verdict comes as handgun makers face a growing threat of massive tobacco-style litigation. For Beretta and its rivals, the victory was particularly sweet because the case drew on some of the same legal theories as were advanced by the city of New Orleans last month in the filing of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. A leading gun control group, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, has been involved in both cases.
Known as Dix vs. Beretta, the Oakland case was filed by the parents of Griffin “Kenzo” Dix, who was shot through the heart in 1994 as his 14-year-old friend showed off his father’s pistol.
The Dixes sued the owner of the gun and got a $100,000 settlement. They also filed a product liability case against Maryland-based Beretta, contending that its failure to incorporate safety features in the 9-millimeter handgun also made it liable for their son’s death.
The case was thought to be the first to claim that a gun was a defective product because it did not incorporate “personalized” or “smart gun” technology--which could prevent a gun from being fired by an unauthorized person, such as a curious child or a criminal who obtains the gun by theft.
That is the same theory pursued by New Orleans, which is seeking reimbursement for police and ambulance services and other costs of responding to injuries and deaths from guns fired by unauthorized people.
The Dix suit also claimed the Beretta pistol was defective because it lacked an indicator to clearly show there was a round in the chamber. The friend who fired the fatal shot had removed the loaded magazine before pointing the gun and pulling the trigger, unaware there still could be a round in the chamber.
But the jury by a vote of 9 to 3 declared the gun was not defective. And it decided that the only significant cause of the tragedy was the negligence of the gun’s owner and his son.
“We’re very pleased that the jury found in favor of our client,” said Rudolph Pino of Pino & Associates, Beretta’s national legal counsel based in White Plains, N.Y. “I really think that the industry is encouraged by the finding in this case.”
“We’re very disappointed,” said Griffin Dix, father of the dead boy. The case presented an “opportunity to save some lives by getting guns designed to be safer products,” Dix said. “But this jury couldn’t see past the irresponsible behavior of the [gun owner] and the way he stored the gun.”
Capping a monthlong trial in Alameda County Superior Court, the jury reached its verdict after deliberating about 10 hours over three days.