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Consumer lawsuits under the gun

A bill designed to prevent government suits against firearm manufacturers may eliminate all product liability suits, some say.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Lawyers, guns and money are mixed up in a measure that could effectively eliminate Floridians' rights to sue manufacturers of defective products.

It began simply enough. The National Rifle Association was pushing a controversial proposal to prevent governments from suing gun manufacturers. Along the line, an even more incendiary provision was added to the bill.

The provision, according to the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, could eliminate the ability to sue the makers of defective, dangerous products, as long as those products were manufacturered legally.

That could save untold millions for the manufacturers of poorly built cars such as the Pinto, dangerous products such as the Dalkon Shield IUD or airplanes with design flaws. It could also prevent future suits against tobacco companies.

"This could be widely construed as totally eliminating all product liability law in Florida," Paul Jess, the academy's general counsel, told lawmakers Wednesday. Nevertheless, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill Wednesday on a 3-2 vote, with the bill's sponsor promising to fix it later. The section already has been stripped from a similar bill in the House. The measure has yet to be voted on by the full House and Senate.

While Democrats have been unable to even get hearings scheduled on a bill requiring manufacturers to install trigger locks, the NRA's bill has steadily moved along through the process. Democratic efforts to limit the lawsuit shield to those gun manufacturers that agree to various gun control measures also have gone nowhere.

"It really speaks to this Legislature," said Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale. "It's sad that what the gun industry wants moves but gun safety measures for children can't."

Marion Hammer, the NRA's lobbyist, isn't shedding any tears. She said lawmakers have repeatedly debated gun control measures over the years.

"Why would the Legislature want to use up committee time to debate proposals that have been killed, and killed and killed again?," Hammer asked.

She is upset, however, that lobbyists for other manufacturers have tacked on the provision that could eliminate Floridians' rights to bring product liability lawsuits. The proposal could be so hotly debated as to kill her efforts to prevent governments from suing the gun industry.

"They should go out and do what I did: get their own bill and find their own sponsor," Hammer said.

The legislation Hammer is pushing is primarily aimed at Miami-Dade County, where Mayor Alex Penelas has sued gun manufacturers to recover the millions of dollars the county spends on police and county hospital services as a result of gun crimes.

Modeled after the arguments that attorneys general in dozens of states used against the tobacco industry, 30 local governments across the country contend that the gun industry deliberately markets to criminals, has failed to install readily available safety devices and does not adequately warn consumers about the dangers of guns.

Hammer's bill would prohibit pending or future lawsuits in Florida. Fifteen other states have enacted similar bans at the behest of the NRA, which says that the gun industry makes a legal product and can't be held liable when that product is misused.

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