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A New Mexico appellate panel has reinstated a products liability suit against a gun manufacturer and a distributor over a gun’s lack of safety devices. The decision means a jury may decide whether a firearm involved in the accidental wounding of a teen-ager was unreasonably dangerous and therefore defective. “For years, New Mexico courts have held manufacturers and distributors responsible for marketing products that pose an unreasonable risk of injury,” Judge Michael Bustamante wrote in the recent ruling. “In this case, we are applying existing principles of product liability under New Mexico law to another type of product supplier: the manufacturer and distributor of the J-22 handgun.” Smith v. Bryco Arms, No. 20,389. 1993 ACCIDENT The case was brought by Sean Smith, who was 14 when he was unintentionally shot and injured in 1993. He and two friends were passing around a .22-caliber gun they thought was unloaded after they removed the ammunition magazine. Brian J. Siebel, a senior attorney with the legal action project of the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the ruling is nationally significant. “It’s a tremendous victory for victims of gun violence,” said Siebel, who helped litigate the case. “It’s one of the few appellate decisions in the U.S. to rule that gun makers have a duty to incorporate safety measures to protect youths.” Defense lawyer Jennie Behles of J.S. Behles & Associates in Albuquerque, who represents Bryco Arms, downplayed the national significance of the ruling, saying the narrow fact pattern limits its influence. Behles plans to file a motion for rehearing the case because she believes there were substantial matters of law overlooked by the panel in relation to the legality of the children’s purchase and use of the gun. She said it is clear that the gun performed as it was intended to perform, so consideration of the case should turn on whether it was used in the manner in which it was intended to be used. “You can not be responsible for other people’s violations of the law in a negligence or product liability case,” she said. Smith’s lawyers had argued that the gun should have included safety features like a magazine-disconnect safety, a chamber load indicator or a warning printed on the gun. For about 30 cents per gun, a magazine-disconnect safety and chamber load indicator could have been included with the J-22, preventing the shooting, according to Siebel. The appellate decision overturned a March 1999 ruling by Bernalillo County District Judge Daniel Schneider, who suggested that in his opinion, the plaintiffs were trying to outlaw or restrict the manufacturing of guns using tort law. He also concluded the issue of required gun safety measures was one for the Legislature.

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