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Hunter's widow allowed to proceed with rifle liability case

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The widow of a man killed by a Remington rifle in a hunting accident that had a known defect has presented enough circumstantial evidence to proceed with her product liability lawsuit against the Remington Arms Co. L.L.C. despite the lack of concrete evidence that the gun had not been altered , says an appeals court, in reversing a lower court ruling.

On Nov. 9, 2008, Lanny O’Neal was shot and killed when his Remington Model 700 .243-caliber bolt-action rifle, which he had loaned to a friend during a deer-hunting expedition near Eagle Butte, South Dakota, discharged when its safety lever was moved, without the friend moving the trigger, according to Wednesday’s ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis in Carol O’Neal v. Remington Arms Company L.L.C. et al. Ms. O’Neal filed a products liability lawsuit wrongful death suit against the Madison, North Carolina-based firm.

The gun had been manufactured in 1971, and the company knew as early as 1979 that there was a defect in the rifle’s trigger that could lead to its firing without having the trigger pulled, according to the ruling.

Remington contended, however, that Ms. O’Neal could not prove that the gun had not been altered or modified after its manufacture. Mr. O’Neal’s stepfather, from whom he had obtained the gun, said it had not been altered since he obtained it in the mid-1980s, “but this leaves a gap of over a decade of unaccounted time,” between its manufacture and the stepfather’s acquisition of it, said the ruling. Complicating the situation was that Ms. O’Neal had asked a friend to destroy the gun because it reminded her of her husband’s death.

The U.S. District Court in Sioux Falls, Idaho, granted Remington summary judgment dismissing the case, on the grounds that Ms. O’Neal could not show her husband’s death was not the result of a post-manufacture alteration or modification to the rifle.

A divided appellate court reversed that ruling and reinstated the case. “South Dakota law allows a plaintiff in a products liability suit to use circumstantial evidence to prove that a defective product caused an injury, and that the injury existed when the product left the defendant’s control,” said the 2-1 ruling.

The court said evidence presented shows that had the gun been altered, “it is highly unlikely the rifle could have been used as many times as it as over the span of the next twenty-plus years without incident.”

The dissenting opinion in the case said because Ms. O’Neal had the rifle destroyed before the lawsuit was filed, she cannot prove the defect that was present when the gun left the manufacturing plan in 1971 killed her husband 37 years later.