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The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania recently granted the summary judgment motion that RLF (“RLF”) filed on behalf of its clients, a major firearms manufacturer and a firearms distributor.  In addition, the Court granted RLF’s motion for monetary sanctions against the plaintiffs’ counsel and his firm pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for persisting with a lawsuit that RLF demonstrated lacked any evidentiary support.

In this product liability firearms lawsuit, the plaintiff was shot in the left hand by a bullet which he claimed discharged as a result of a “defect” in the pistol he was handling.  Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the pistol discharged while the slide was not fully closed (out-of-battery) and without him ever pulling the trigger.  The plaintiff also claimed that, instead of exiting the pistol through the barrel and out of the muzzle, the bullet that struck his hand was discharged out of the left side of the pistol’s slide just above the trigger.  In an attempt to support this claim, plaintiffs retained two proposed firearms experts who merely opined that the damage to the pistol was consistent with an out-of-battery discharge.  After conducting fact discovery designed to demonstrate the implausibility of the plaintiff’s claim and marshaling support for the defense theory that the damage to the pistol’s slide was the result of another force, particularly, a round of ammunition discharged into it by another firearm, RLF conducted the deposition of one of the plaintiffs’ retained experts.  During the first expert deposition, RLF elicited testimony and concessions that completely destroyed the opinions of the plaintiffs’ expert and refuted the plaintiffs’ account of how the incident occurred.  Immediately after this deposition, the plaintiffs’ counsel withdrew his second expert rather than proceeding with his deposition as scheduled.  Plaintiffs’ counsel also subsequently withdrew the expert that RLF had deposed in acknowledgement that his opinions would not be admissible under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Chemicals and its progeny.

RLF quickly moved for summary judgment and also filed a motion for monetary sanctions against the plaintiff and his counsel pursuant to Rule 11 for forcing the defendants to incur the costs necessary to defend a frivolous lawsuit.  The Court granted RLF’s motion for summary judgment finding, among other things, that there was no evidence that the pistol was defective.  The plaintiffs had attempted to stave off summary judgment by arguing that they did not have to produce expert testimony in order to establish a prima facie case for product defect because they could avail themselves of Pennsylvania’s “malfunction theory.”  The Court adopted RLF’s position that the malfunction theory was inapplicable in this case because the product was not destroyed, had been inspected by plaintiffs’ retained experts, and the plaintiffs continued to advance the specific defect theory offered by their proposed experts (an out-of-battery discharge) before their counsel withdrew them.  The Court also held that, even if the malfunction theory applied, plaintiffs could not prevail under it as a matter of law because they failed to establish that the pistol “malfunctioned” and they had failed to rebut a reasonable secondary cause of the incident identified by the defendants – that the damage to the pistol was caused by a force originating from outside the pistol (i.e., a bullet discharged from another firearm).

The Court also agreed with RLF that the plaintiffs’ counsel’s conduct, including his failure to fully investigate the plaintiff’s defect claims and his story as to how this incident occurred, warranted the imposition of monetary sanctions.  As such, in a strong and comprehensive opinion, the Court granted the motion for sanctions RLF had filed in an effort to recover the costs that their clients incurred in defending this case.  Specifically, the Court held that monetary sanctions were warranted against the plaintiffs’ counsel and his firm for persisting with his theory of defect after it had been shown to be meritless.  The Court also held that plaintiffs’ counsel’s failure to dismiss this case after the deposition of his expert was sanctionable because there was no evidentiary support for the plaintiffs’ defect claims. 

For further information concerning this litigation, please contact Christopher Renzulli.