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A Texas jury has rejected the contention of two victims of a shooting rampage 10 years ago that Wal-Mart was liable for selling a semi-automatic handgun to the shooter — a mentally unstable attorney. The plaintiffs unsuccessfully contended that store personnel should have been trained to ask provoking questions that might have revealed the customer’s dangerous paranoia. Plaintiff’s counsel Art Brender of the Fort Worth, Texas, Law Offices of Art Brender, said the verdict underscored the difficulty of picking a jury on the highly polarized gun issue. “We did some focus groups on this and there are really only two positions on guns,” he said. “There are the people who don’t think they ought to be sold at all, and those people frankly are more honest about their feelings, and people who feel that sellers shouldn’t be held responsible for the guy who pulled the trigger. Despite nearly a full day of voir dire, we ended up with a jury that had decided before they ever sat down that unless there was overwhelming evidence they were not going to hold the seller responsible.” Defense counsel Ramona Martinez of Dallas’ Cowles & Thompson said the jury simply rejected the plaintiff’s theory that gun sellers have a duty to “screen” potential purchasers for dangerous mental illnesses. “They [the plaintiffs] were looking for an application of the law that just wasn’t there,” she said. The suit was brought by the family of Chris Marshall, an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County, Texas, who died in the shooting spree, and by retired Judge Clyde Ashworth, who was wounded. The killer, Gregory D. Lott, was convicted of killing two people and wounding three others in a rampage on July 1, 1992, at the Court of Appeal in the Tarrant County Courthouse. Lott, a lawyer who practiced law sporadically for seven years before surrendering his law license in 1988, has since been executed. Brender described Lott as a “manifestly irrational” person who came to view the Tarrant County court system as his enemy following a bruising divorce and custody battle between Lott and his former wife, Margaret Best. A court-ordered family study by a psychologist concluded that Lott had a paranoid disorder and a violent temper. On May 2, 1992, Lott, apparently bent on revenge against the Tarrant County courts, purchased a 9-millimeter Glock semi-automatic handgun from a Wal-Mart store, then known as Hypermart, in Arlington, Texas. Brender argued that store personnel should have been trained to ask “screening questions” that might have provoked a suspicious reaction from persons suffering paranoid disorders. “If you ask what is the purpose for purchasing the weapon you don’t expect Lott to answer, ‘I am going to shoot people at the court of appeal’ but you will get a reaction out of the ordinary,” he said. Martinez said gun sellers have no legal obligation to determine the mental health of gun purchasers beyond a standard of what is reasonable. Lott, she said, gave no outward appearance of having mental problems. “He didn’t appear aggressive or angry,” she said. “He was a graduate of law school. He was a smart man. This mass murder was a plotted event. I don’t doubt that even if he is a crazy man and very angry, he could mask that for the 20 minutes it takes to buy a firearm.” Brender said screening questions, like those used by airlines, will elicit revealing responses from dangerously mentally ill people. Marshall v. Wal-Mart Super Centers Inc., No. 236-154399-94, (Tarrant Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.).

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