Friday, October 08, 1999

Judge dismisses city's gun lawsuit


Appeal likely by next week, attorney says

BY DAN HORN and PHILLIP PINA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Frank Costello, a North College Hill gun dealer, says the blame for gun violence should be aimed at criminals.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        The city of Cincinnati lost its lawsuit against gun manufacturers Thursday when a judge ruled that the companies are not responsible for violence committed with their products.

        The decision is the first of its kind and was hailed by some as a major victory for the gun industry, which faces similar suits in nearly 30 other cities.

        Although the ruling is not legally binding in the other cases, those on both sides of the debate said it could set a precedent for the rest of the country.

        “We are confident that other cities that have filed such reckless lawsuits will soon hear the same message,” said James J. Baker, a director with the National Rifle Association.

        Kristen Rand, a gun-control advocate with the Violence Policy Center, said the decision “sets a dangerous precedent.”

        “It's an important and unfor tunate development,” she said.

        Judge Robert Ruehlman threw out the suit after concluding that the misuse of firearms is beyond the control of gun makers.

        The judge also rejected the city's claim that manufacturers were negligent in their design of handguns because they failed to include adequate safety devices.

        “The risks of the use of firearms are open and obvious and commonly recognized,” the judge wrote. “(They) cannot be a basis for fraud or negligent misrepresentation.”

        The city filed the lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court in an effort to recover the costs of gun-related violence.

        As many as 28 U.S. cities have filed similar lawsuits, all of which still are pending.

        In the Cincinnati case, the city sought a court order requiring the gun industry to change the way it designs and distributes guns. It also demanded damages based on the industry's “negligent” and “reckless” actions.

        Cincinnati officials vowed to appeal Judge Ruehlman's decision.

        “Both the council and the vast majority of the public believe there are way too many guns on the streets,” said Councilman Todd Portune. “And too many gun makers and distributors have been negligent in their design and distribution.”

        Mr. Portune was part of the majority when council voted 5-4 in February to go forward with the lawsuit.

        The city's attorney, Stanley Chesley, said it was premature for the judge to throw out the suit so early in the process. He said he is confident an appeals court will agree.

        He said an appeal could be filed as early as next week.

        Because the judge dismissed the lawsuit “with prejudice,” the city would be barred from filing a new or amended lawsuit in the future unless it wins its appeal.

        Attorneys for the gun makers said the appeal should suffer the same fate as the original suit.

        “These claims are flawed and unsupported under the law,” said Jim Dorr, a Chicago lawyer representing the gun makers. “It's really not appropriate to hold anyone responsible for the criminal conduct of individuals over whom they have no control.”

        Mr. Dorr said the judge's rejection of the suit could have a major impact on other cases around the country.

        Gun-control advocates, including those at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., agreed the decision will hurt their cause.

        Ms. Rand said part of the blame must be placed on Cincinnati and other cities that filed strikingly similar lawsuits. The problem, she said, is that the suits are too broad, make too many allegations and name too many gun manufacturers.

        She said some cities — Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles — took a different approach when they filed suits that allege specific violations based on undercover work by local authorities.

        Local opponents of the lawsuit said they hope the judge's ruling is the first of many.

        “It's a ridiculous lawsuit,” said Frank Costello, owner of Costello's Gun Shop in North College Hill. “You've got to put the blame where the blame belongs. You've got to punish the criminals.”

        When council approved the lawsuit, proponents argued that it was justified by the level of gun violence in the city the past six years: 107 gun-related homicides and 84 gun-related suicides.

       



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