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Defective Rifle Lawsuit Can Go Forward Despite No Smoking Gun

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 16, 2015 6:58 AM

When Carol O'Neal's husband died in a hunting accident, she sued his rifle's manufacturer, the Remington Arms Company. The rifle's design was defective, she alleged, causing the gun to fire when the trigger wasn't pulled.

There was one catch, though. Ms. O'Neal couldn't produce her husband's rifle or even any direct evidence of the defect. That doesn't mean her case can't go forward, however, the Eighth Circuit ruled on Wednesday.

A Recall Would Be Too Hard, Right?

The Remington Model 700 was a .243 caliber bolt-action rifle first manufactured in 1971. It employed a "Walker trigger" that, O'Neal alleges, could fire when the gun's safety was released, though no one had pulled the trigger. Minutes from a Remington product safety meeting in 1979 showed that the company knew the guns could be "tricked" into firing when the safety was released, but the company declined to recall the rifles since "the recall would have to gather 2,000,000 guns just to find 20,000 that are susceptible to this condition."

Nearly three decades later, O'Neal's husband Lanny brought a Remington Model 700 out to hunt deer. He loaned it to a friend, who removed the safety but did not pull the trigger when Lanny was in front of him. The gun fired and Lanny soon died from the wound.

The Opposite of a Smoking Gun

Distraught by her husband's death and unable to find any attorneys who would take her case, O'Neal asked a friend to destroy the rifle so that she wouldn't be reminded of the tragedy.

The fact that O'Neal couldn't produce the allegedly defective weapon -- and that she couldn't account for who possessed the gun before Lanny's step-father acquired it in the 80's -- convinced the district court to dismiss her case on summary judgment. Without the gun itself and with nearly a decade where the gun's possession was unknown, O'Neal couldn't prove that the rifle hadn't misfired because of an alteration or modification, not a design defect.

Circumstantial Evidence Is Enough Evidence

The lack of the gun and the gaps in its history didn't preclude O'Neal from pursuing her product liability suit, the Eighth Circuit ruled on appeal. Under governing South Dakota law, circumstantial evidence may be used to show that a defect existed and caused an injury. A plaintiff bears the burden of showing the product wasn't altered or modified, but that can be met through circumstantial evidence as well.

When read in the most favorable light, O'Neal's complaint does just that, the Eighth ruled. Remington acknowledged that 20,000 rifles were defective and expert evidence showed that any Model 700 could inadvertently discharge. That fact that no one else who used the gun experienced problems was also sufficient to show that it hadn't been altered. Of course, Remington may disprove O'Neal's assertions at trial, but they won't be able to stop that trial from occurring.

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