Widow of slain teacher sues gun distributor over safety
WEST PALM BEACH -- The cheap gun 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill used to kill his favorite teacher would have been safer with a $3 lock but instead was sold in a "lousy, little cardboard box," an attorney for the teacher's widow said Monday.
Pam Grunow is suing the distributor of the .25-caliber Raven handgun used to kill her husband two years ago, alleging that the gun is unreasonably dangerous because it has no safety and too often falls into the hands of juveniles.
Attorneys for distributor Valor Corp. maintain that the gun is not defective and worked as it should, firing a bullet when Brazill pulled the trigger after pointing it at Barry Grunow in a middle school hallway.
Valor attorney John Renzulli said the fault lies with Brazill and Elmore McCray, the family friend who owned the gun and stored it in a cookie tin in a drawer, unlocked and loaded.
"You put the matches with the gasoline. That's exactly what was done here," Renzulli told an all-female panel of eight jurors.
Rebecca Larson, an attorney for Pam Grunow, said that Valor had been notified thousands of times by federal officials that products they distributed were used in crimes but did nothing to make them safer.
"The defense's product has absolutely devastated the lives of everyone who came into contact with it," she said, standing in front of a large color photo of Pam Grunow and her two young children.
Larson told jurors the Raven handgun had no legitimate purpose and was not used for hunting, target practice, as a collector's item or by law enforcement or the military.
"So what is this gun used for?" she said. "Exactly what the government's statistics show it's used for: crime."
The case has drawn national attention because it is the first to address both the gun's absence of a lock and the flaws associated with a cheap, easily concealable weapon that can be confused with a toy.
The gun was bought by Valor for $27 and sold to a pawn shop for about $33.50, less than half the cost of similar firearms. The manufacturer, Raven Arms Inc., is no longer in business.
Grunow's attorneys say the gun is used in a disproportionately high number of crimes. By seeking millions of dollars from Valor, they hope to get the cheap weapons off the streets.
The plaintiffs compare their case to lawsuits against large tobacco companies. While the public initially thought in those cases that people who bought cigarettes had known they were dangerous, the plaintiffs point to the multibillion dollar verdicts some smokers have won after claiming the companies should have made their products safer.
Renzulli said Valor couldn't have prevented Grunow's death and that the $3 locking device the plaintiffs mentioned can be picked in six seconds. It also could create difficulties for people who own the gun for self-protection.
He showed jurors a timeline from the point the gun left Valor in 1989 to the afternoon Brazill brought the gun to school and shot Grunow. He told of how Brazill easily stole the gun from McCray's home and showed it off to two schoolmates at Lake Worth Middle School before bringing it to school the afternoon he shot Grunow.
"The gun was in circulation for 11 years. No mischief. No crime -- until Brazill got his hands on it," Renzulli said.
Brazill, who is now 16, brought the gun to school on May 26, 2000, after being suspended for taking part in a water-balloon fight. He returned to Grunow's classroom in the afternoon and asked to speak to two female classmates.
He maintained throughout his criminal trial last year that he pointed the gun at Grunow to scare him and that it had gone off accidentally. Jurors didn't believe the defense and convicted him of second-degree murder. He is expected to take a break from his 28-year prison sentence to testify in the civil trial.
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