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Judge overturns verdict against gun distributor

A circuit judge says the decision in the case centered around Nathaniel Brazill's weapon was inconsistent.

©Associated Press

January 28, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH -- A judge threw out a $1.2-million verdict Monday against the company that distributed the gun 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill used to kill a teacher 21/2 years ago.

Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled that the Nov. 14 award to Lake Worth Middle School teacher Barry Grunow's widow, Pam Grunow, was inconsistent because the jury also determined that the gun was not defective.

The award was the first issued against the firearms industry because of the absence of a gun lock and the overall design of a cheap, easily concealable weapon known as a "Saturday night special." Gun safety advocates said the verdict would force the industry to make safer guns.

Pam Grunow sued gun distributor Valor Corp. after her husband was gunned down in a school hallway in May 2000. She claimed Valor should have made the gun safer by installing a lock or other device.

The verdict had largely spared Valor itself from blame in the closely watched case.

The six-woman jury found that Valor was only liable for 5 percent of a $24-million judgment for selling the small handgun Brazill used.

Valor attorney John Renzulli said Labarga's ruling shows the gun industry can't be held liable in such cases. He said the blame belonged with Brazill and with Elmore McCray, who owned the .25-caliber Raven handgun and stored it in a drawer, unlocked and loaded, where Brazill found it.

Brazill, now 16, was sentenced to 28 years in prison. He said he pointed the handgun at his favorite teacher to scare him and never intended to pull the trigger.

"We know what happened here; a criminal got in touch with a gun and shot somebody in cold blood," Renzulli said. "That's certainly not Valor's fault."

Grunow's attorneys said Valor was notified thousands of times by federal officials that products it distributed were used in crimes, but the company did nothing to make the weapons safer. They also argued that the gun is unreliable and isn't used by collectors, law officers or the military, or for target practice, hunting or self-defense.

Sunrise-based Valor Corp., with 14,000 licensed firearms dealers nationwide, argued in the case that the gun did what it was designed to do and wasn't at fault.

The original verdict assigned half of the blame to McCray, and another 45 percent to the Palm Beach County School Board for allowing Brazill to bring the weapon, hidden in his pocket, onto campus. McCray and the school were never expected to pay the verdict because they weren't defendants in the suit.

The jury decided that Pam Grunow deserved $10-million for her loss and her children, 7-year-old Samuel and 3-year-old Lee-Anne, each deserved $7-million.

Rebecca Larson, Grunow's attorney, said Pam Grunow was disappointed in the judge's ruling Monday, particularly after an emotional six-week trial. She said the ruling will be appealed.

"Pam's feeling, her primary objective has always been to make a difference," Larson said. "She knew from the beginning that this was not going to be easy."

Larson said the company's actions should be considered negligent even though the jury determined the gun was not defective.

"For example, take a medication that's perfectly legitimate and not a defective product. If you sell it in a bottle that doesn't have a tamper-proof cap, you're negligent," Larson said.

Brazill stole the gun from McCray after being sent home the last day of school for throwing water balloons. He returned to the school to say goodbye to two girls and became angry when Grunow wouldn't let him inside his classroom.

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