Products Liability Law Daily Exclusion of rifle trigger testimony and judgment for rifle maker shot down on appeal
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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Exclusion of rifle trigger testimony and judgment for rifle maker shot down on appeal

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

Because a trial court mischaracterized an expert’s opinion and the evidence supporting it in an action by the widow of a hunter who was killed by gunshot, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that it was an abuse of discretion for the lower court to exclude the expert’s testimony. Consequently, the court of appeals reversed the lower court’s judgment granting both the manufacturer’s motion to exclude the expert testimony and its motion for summary judgment. The judgment for the manufacturer was vacated and the case remanded (Seamon v. Remington Arms Co., LLC, February 17, 2016, Robreno, E.).

The hunter, who had been deer hunting alone, was found dead in his elevated tree stand with a single gunshot wound to his chest. His rifle was found on the ground thirteen feet below the tree stand, and there was a rope attached to the rifle. The rifle’s safety mechanism was off, there was a spent cartridge casing in the rifle’s chamber, and there was no gunshot residue on the hunter’s body or clothing, which led law enforcement officers to conclude that the rifle was at least five to ten feet away from the hunter when it fired. In addition, his left hand was clenched around the front rail of his tree stand, while his right hand was positioned as if he had been grasping something. There were no known witnesses to the shooting. What caused the rifle to fire was in question.

The hunter’s widow, individually and as the personal representative of her husband’s estate, filed suit against Remington Arms Company, LLC, the manufacturer of the hunter’s rifle, alleging that the hunter died as a result of a defect in his Remington Model 700 bolt action rifle.

Trial court rulings. The trial court excluded the causation opinion of the widow’s liability expert, Charles Powell, as an expert in metallurgical engineering who concluded that the rifle fired due to a defect in its trigger system. The lower court found that the expert’s opinion did not have sufficient factual support, and that it was speculative and, thus, unreliable. As a result of the exclusion of his testimony, final judgment was entered in favor of Remington (see Products Liability Law Daily, September 30, 2014, analysis).

The rifle and its trigger mechanism. The Remington Model 700 rifle contained a Walker fire control system. In the Walker system, the “sear” component holds back the firing pin, and the “connector” supports the sear by resting under it. When the trigger is pulled, the connector moves forward, allowing the sear to drop and the firing pin to snap forward and fire a cartridge. The “sear engagement” is the place where the connector and the sear meet and was very small—approximately one-fortieth of an inch. Thus, even very slight movement of the connector allowed the sear to drop and the rifle to fire.

Expert’s opinion. According to the expert, rifles with Walker triggers have fired unexpectedly as reported in documents produced by Remington. He opined that the use of the connector was a design defect in the Walker system because that component did not “reliably return to full engagement with the [s]ear each time the rifle bolt is cocked.” If the connector does not fully return to its proper position supporting the sear, the sear can drop when it should not, causing the rifle to fire. The expert gave examples of what can cause the connector to fail to return to its proper position, such as the presence of dirt and/or condensation. These would be “interferences” within the fire control housing, and even the presence of minute particles could prevent the connector from engaging the sear correctly. A possible result could be the rifle firing without a trigger pull.

Because the expert found particles and deposits within the fire control housing when he examined the rifle (similar to interferences in other rifles with Walker systems), he believed that interferences with the firing components “produced inadequate sear-connector engagement and allowed the … rifle to release the firing pin and fire” without a trigger pull. He further opined that the rifle could have contacted an external force, such as the tree, rope, or ground, and jarred the connector out of position, allowing the rifle to fire (a “jar-off”).

Eleventh Circuit’s findings. The court of appeals held that the trial court’s conclusion that the expert’s opinion was unreliable because he had not adequately accounted for possible alternative causes of the shooting, and he had formed his opinions based upon facts not in the record was manifestly erroneous. The appellate court found that the lower court mischaracterized the expert’s opinion and the evidence supporting it, and, therefore, abused its discretion by excluding the expert’s testimony.

Treatment of alternative causes. The Eleventh Circuit found it “evident from the record” that the expert provided a reasonable explanation for his conclusion that any alternative cause was not the “sole cause” of the incident. The record supported his statement that the evidence was contrary to the trigger having been pulled—including the lack of gunshot residue on the hunter, his body position, and the position of the rope. Given the evidence, the expert provided a reasonable explanation for why the manufacturer’s proposed alternative cause—a trigger pull—was not the cause of death.

Factual support. Also, the appellate court found that the trial court’s holding that the expert’s opinion was based on speculation, rather than facts in the record, mischaracterized the evidentiary support for his opinion. First, the trial court conflated reasonable inference with improper speculation when considering the circumstances of the shooting. There were a number of factual possibilities making what happened unknown. The expert said that there “may have been a jar off.” While there was no affirmative evidence of a jar-off, the evidence was inconsistent with the trigger-pull theory, but consistent with the jar-off theory. Thus, it was not speculative or unreasonable for the expert to infer that a jar-off occurred. Even if both theories were equally plausible, such a finding would not be a basis for the exclusion of the expert’s opinion, but rather a matter for the jury. Second, the lower court incorrectly stated that the expert was unable to replicate a jar off in his testing/inspection of the rifle. The expert clarified that he did not conduct the test because the condition of the sear engagement when he received the rifle would have made it a fruitless enterprise. Thus, it was clearly erroneous for the district court to effectively draw an adverse inference from the alleged failure of the expert’s testing. Third, the trial court observed that there was no evidence of interferences causing a precipitously low sear engagement at the time the rifle fired. However, it was impossible to know the precise positioning of the sear in the moments before the rifle fired. Nonetheless, the expert found debris in the fire control housing—the type of debris that he previously observed interfering with the sear engagement in the same type of rifle.

Summary judgment. Because the Eleventh Circuit reversed the trial court’s grant of the manufacturer’s motion to exclude the expert’s testimony, it also reversed the lower court’s decision to grant the rifle maker’s motion for summary judgment.

The case is No. 14-15662.

Attorneys: Timothy W. Monsees (Monsees & Mayer, PC) for Cynthia Seamon. J. Banks Sewell, III (Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC) and Dale G. Wills (Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP) for Remington Arms Co., LLC.

Companies: Remington Arms Co., LLC

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