January 18, 2003

By Michael Strickland

More Stupid Lawsuits

Last night, I read with disdain an AP story that reported a pending lawsuit filed against the gun manufacturer and store linked to the Bushmaster XM15 assault rifle used in the Washington D.C.-area sniper attacks. What is it about our litigious society that we feel justified in suing any person or corporation even remotely connected to any tortious conduct? I've spent an entire semester exploring the concepts of negligence in tort law, and I confess I'm no closer to understanding the rationale behind such lawsuits.

The lawsuit alleges that the offending weapon was used in the sniper attacks less than three months after it was purchased. The plaintiffs' attorney said, "Such a swift 'time to crime' is highly indicative of grossly negligent sales and distribution practices on the part of Bull's Eye [the retail store] and the gun industry defendant." Huh? By that logic, the store would be more culpable if a person bought a gun legally and immediately used it to commit murder than if a purchaser waited a year and then committed murder. Just how can a store be held liable in the first place, when it is engaged in the legal sale of firearms and follows the law with regard to such sales?

Such tort lawsuits continue to baffle me, even with a smattering of legal education under my belt. Thus, I thought it appropriate to reprint an editorial that I wrote on this subject a few years ago. If you have an opinion on this topic, I'd love to hear it.

Don't Tread on Meor I'll Sue
Los Angeles Times
November 13, 1999

My optometrist gave me the wrong prescription for my new glasses, so I'm going to sue Bazzato. That's the maker of the eyeglass frames. It's their fault, right? In fact, while I'm at it, I should file a lawsuit against Ford over that scratch in my car's paint that appeared last time I went to the car wash. They're definitely liable. Oh, and that money I lost in Vegas last summer? The casino's fault.

If you're chuckling about now, let me ask you this: does it sound any less irresponsible to sue a gun maker because two crazed teenagers went on a shooting rampage? Or to blame a tobacco company for the death of a loved one who made the choice to inhale smoke into his lungs for forty years? Every time I hear of such lawsuits, I shake my head in disbelief. Yet in many courtrooms in America, millions of tax dollars are being spent arguing cases that would be thrown out in a New York minute if Common Sense were the Law of the Land.

In November of last year, the family of a teenager killed by another boy with a Beretta sued the gun manufacturer for "negligence." Without knowing the facts of the case, I would agree that negligence caused the kid's death. However, I would say it was the boy who did the killing, as well as the parents who weren't around, who were negligent. Fortunately, the jury in that case had some common sense and dismissed the suit.

Dennis Hennigan, of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, can't be accused of having common sense, however. Hennigan recently called gun manufacturers "...a very secretive industry that markets a very lethal product." Well, isn't that the point? If I were purchasing a handgun for home protection, I wouldn't want the "non-lethal" model.

And it was reported in today's news that impending lawsuits have forced 144-year-old gun maker Colt Manufacturing to stop selling handguns to consumers. The company's post-Civil War slogan was once "Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal." If you favor these new lawsuits, however, then you'll agree that men who used Colt firearms to commit violence were not free; Colt made them do it, and should therefore be punished.

Such misplaced blame seems outrageous; but in the wake of successful tobacco lawsuits, it's not hard to see how such litigation can find support. Somewhere along the way, courts—and by extension the Americans who served on the juries—have forgotten about the meaning of accountability and personal responsibility. These days, murderers no longer act alone; they share the blame with the parents who abused them, the drug dealer who doped them up, and the gun manufacturer who pulled the trigger. But hey, why stop there? Blame Hanes for making the killer's underwear too tight, Right Guard for failing to control his body odor and McDonald's for selling him the Big Mac that pushed him over the edge.

I used to smoke cigarettes. I did not need a government study or a press release from the tobacco company to tell me that a) drawing smoke into my lungs hundreds of times a day was hazardous to my health; and b) every time I got a "nicotine fit," it meant I was addicted and needed my "fix." If I come down with lung cancer, I'll kick myself, I'll curse my own stupidity, I'll wish I had never smoked that first cigarette. And I'll be blaming the right person. It was my own free will that made me smoke.

Similarly, if a loved one were gunned down tomorrow by a crazed lunatic, I would blame the criminal, I would push strenuously for his death sentence, I might even be tempted to take the law into my own hands. But how on Earth could I make the mental leap to blame the manufacturer of the legal weapon that the criminal used illegally? I'm sure that gun makers have also built countless guns that have saved lives—but you rarely hear about those cases.

As a nation, we are quickly abandoning responsibility for our actions. Unlike the vulnerable child who grows up and learns to fend for itself, Americans are learning not to fend for themselves. If we injure ourselves, it's not our fault; if someone else hurts us, it's not their fault. The legal precedent being set by this spate of lawsuits is that no one is accountable for his or her actions; it's Big Government and Corporate America's job to protect everyone from everything.

Our national motto used to be "Don't tread on me." It should be updated for the twenty-first century to read "Don't tread on me—or I'll sue the maker of your shoes."


©2003 Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Daily Chuckle:

99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name.

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year, I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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1/17: Finding My Passion
1/16: Gulf War Memories
1/15: Meet the New Boss
1/14: Man's Other Best Friend
1/13: Sea of Fire
1/12: Back to the Books
1/11: America's Finest Climate
1/10: Sunshine in a Bottle
1/9: What Would Jesus Drive?
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Wheel of Fortune
Class Warfare
1/5: Very Large Dream
The New Nuclear Age
Going Solo
New Year, Old Cave
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