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A federal court jury in Salt Lake City awarded $1.5 million in punitive damages against Kmart Thursday for selling a gun to a man who used it to kill himself. The jury determined earlier Thursday that Kmart acted with “reckless indifference” in the gun sale, opening the door for the punitive damages. The same jury on Wednesday found Kmart was negligent when its employees sold a shotgun to Ryan Tait Eslinger, 19, a paranoid schizophrenic who killed himself May 23, 1996. They awarded his parents $1.5 million in compensatory damages. Eslinger’s parents, Sandra and Phil Eslinger, claimed the May 1996 gun sale violated federal law, and that the corporation was negligent when it allowed a 17-year-old store employee to sell the gun. “Hopefully, Kmart will get the message they can’t do business this way,” Phil Eslinger said. “Selling guns is a serious business.” The company released a statement: “While Ryan Eslinger’s death is certainly a regrettable tragedy, Kmart maintains that the sale of the firearm was in compliance with federal law.” The only witness to take the stand Thursday was Steve Branch, manager of the store where the gun was sold. Branch was questioned about his store’s chain of authority and his actions and responsibilities in the gun sale. Kmart attorney Rodney Parker argued that the corporation could not be punished for the actions of individual employees. There was no convincing evidence of recklessness on Kmart’s part, he argued. The Eslingers’ attorney, James McKenna, argued that all the policies that led to the negligence award came from the corporation’s highest levels. The Eslingers say the clerk who sold the shotgun, a high school acquaintance of Eslinger, failed to seek proper identification and went on with the sale even though medication that Eslinger was taking made him appear intoxicated. “Nobody knew what they were supposed to do,” McKenna said Wednesday. Parker said it wasn’t Kmart’s responsibility to foresee Eslinger’s death, which was “the tragic outcome of a serious mental illness.” He also said Eslinger did not appear unstable at the store and lied on a gun application form that asked whether he had ever been judged mentally defective. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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