- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

From combined dispatches

SAN FRANCISCO Victims cannot sue gun makers when criminals use their products illegally, California's top court ruled yesterday, rejecting a lawsuit stemming from the 1993 massacre of eight persons in a skyscraper.

The 5-1 decision by the California Supreme Court made the nation's largest state, and one of its most liberal court systems, the latest to reject anti-gun groups' attempts to use product-liability laws to sue weapons manufacturers.

Every state high court and federal appellate court in the nation to consider such lawsuits has ruled that makers of legal, non-defective guns cannot be sued for their criminal misuse.

Yesterday's decision said the legislature's rules regarding product liability do not allow for such lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

"The Legislature has set California's public policy regarding gun manufacturers liability under these circumstances. Given that public policy, plaintiffs may not proceed with their negligence claim," Justice Ming W. Chin wrote.

The justices overturned a lower court decision that was the nation's only state appellate ruling allowing victims to sue gun manufacturers for a users' criminal acts.

Survivers of the rampage claimed that Miami-based Navegar was liable for damages because it marketed the TEC-DC9 to appeal to criminals, and that Navegar should have foreseen the gun would be used in a massacre.

Their case, originally thrown out by a judge, was resurrected two years ago when California's 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that the survivors were entitled to a trial on their claims.

In July 1993, Gian Luigi Ferri, a mentally disturbed man with a grudge against lawyers, entered the San Francisco skyscraper and opened fire in a law office with two TEC-DC9s and a revolver. He killed eight persons and wounded six before killing himself.

"These guns were designed for mass killing, and they were marketing, targeting these types of folks like Ferri," said Carol Kingsley, whose husband, lawyer Jack Berman, was killed when a hail of bullets punctured Mr. Berman's closed office door.

Found in Ferri's suburban Los Angeles apartment were copies of Soldier of Fortune and similar magazines, in which Navegar commonly advertised the TEC-DC9.

In a lone dissent yesterday, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said the victims' case should proceed to trial on grounds that Navegar was negligent in marketing the fast-firing weapon to the general public. She said her colleagues misconstrued California's product-liability laws, which she believes allows such lawsuits against gun makers.

Ernest Getto, an attorney for Navegar, said there was no evidence of any connection between the manufacturer's legal activities and Ferri's criminal conduct.

Gun industry representatives praised the ruling, saying the California decision along with a similar victory before the New York state Supreme Court in April represented a "knockdown punch" that could torpedo a number of liability lawsuits, including several brought by U.S. cities.

"These were both critical cases, and they have both been decided in favor of the existing law, which says you can't hold manufacturers responsible for the criminal acts of third parties," said Jim Baker, chief lobbyist for the Washington-based National Rifle Association.

Dennis Henigan, director of the Brady Center's Legal Action Project, who argued the case before the Supreme Court in May, said history will not be kind to the court's ruling.

"Justice Werdeger's dissenting opinion will one day be the law of the land in California and across the country," said Mr. Henigan.

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