Originally created 03/09/99

Some doubt states can block gun suits



NEW ORLEANS -- As cities sue firearms makers over gun-related violence and death, another legal war is breaking out over whether state legislatures can block the suits after they are filed.

Georgia state lawmakers have passed a law to stop a suit by the city of Atlanta and the Louisiana legislature will consider one later this month trying to overturn a suit by New Orleans.

Chicago, Miami, and Bridgeport, Conn. have also filed suits against the gun industry, all accusing it of failing to provide adequate safety devices on guns.

Gun opponents got encouragement last month when a jury in New York returned a $4 million verdict in a suit by the victim of an accidental gunshot wound.

That plaintiff said industry negligence in marketing and distribution let weapons flow into states with strict anti-gun laws.

Legal experts say this new struggle between pro-gun legislatures and anti-gun cities will probably also be fought out in court, with the outcome varying from state to state.

"You can say that, from this day, you cannot file a lawsuit," said David Logan, a professor at Wake Forest law school.

"The question is about suits in the pipeline."

New Orleans attorney Dan Abel is among the lawyers suing the gun makers. He argues that liability laws define the obligations people have to each other and can't be changed after an obligation has been breached.

"You can change them for the future, but you can't change them for the past," he said.

To bolster his point, Mr. Abel noted that a group of New Orleans residents won $3.4 billion in damages resulting from a railroad tank car fire in the late 1980s.

The verdict held up despite the fact that, in the early 1990s, the legislature put severe restrictions on such damage awards, he said.

Lester Brickman, a professor at the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva in New York, said cities suing gun makers would be on firmer legal ground if they managed to get a jury verdict before the state law banning the suit is passed.

"If they had a jury verdict, that would be a property right, and they could not undo it," he said.

Bill limits liability

The Louisiana bill that would prevent lawsuits against gun manufacturers expands on an existing state law that limits liability. It bars lawsuits against gun makers and sellers if the buyer of the gun uses it in a way "inconsistent with the purpose for which it was intended," in other words, using it to commit a crime.

The bill also exempts from suits the sellers and makers of weapons without safety devices, thus giving manufacturers immunity from damages stemming from accidental shootings.