A federal judge in Kansas City expressed deep skepticism on Tuesday about whether he will approve a multi-million-dollar settlement offer in a class-action lawsuit against Remington Arms.
The offer is the result of allegations that the nation’s oldest gunmaker had knowingly installed faulty trigger mechanisms in its most popular rifles for more than 40 years. The defects left some of the firearms prone to dangerous accidental discharges. Under the terms of the settlement, Remington is offering to replace millions of the guns’ trigger assemblies without admitting wrongdoing. Critics, including 10 state attorneys general, say that’s not good enough.
U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith of the Western District of Missouri promised on Tuesday that he would rule on the unprecedented settlement in the next 30 days. But he also voiced concerns over how few gun owners — only about 22,000 as of this week — were taking Remington up on its replacement offer, and how low a financial penalty the rifle-maker might realize from the settlement.
“If the settlement is approved, Remington is absolved of close to half a billion dollars in potential liability…at a cost of less than $3 million,” Smith told representatives of both parties in court. “That is a very small payment for Remington in this case.”
If the court rejects the settlement, the class action could take Remington to trial.
At issue are design flaws in the venerable Remington Model 700 series of bolt-action rifles, a favorite among hunters and target shooters, and a longtime pattern for police and military sniper rifles. More than 7.5 million of the rifles and related Remington firearms were sold between 1962 and 2006. A 2010 investigation by CNBC showed that the weapons could potentially fire without a pull of the trigger, a fault in the mechanism that the network said resulted in two dozen deaths and more than 100 injuries.
The key impetus for CNBC’s investigation and the class action was the accidental shooting death of a 9-year-old Montana boy, Gus Barber, by his mother in 2000. The family had just wrapped up a hunting trip in the Gravelly Mountains when Barbara Barber attempted to unload her Model 700. The muzzle was pointed at an empty horse trailer, but Barbara didn’t realize that Gus had chosen that moment to run to the other side of the trailer, where he wasn’t visible. With her fingers off the trigger, she said, the gun discharged, killing Gus.
Barbara and Gus’s father, Richard, decided to take legal action after their son’s funeral.
“I promised Gus that day that this was going to end here and now,” Richard Barber told the Billings Gazette in 2011. “I told him that I would never be bought and that I would never quit.”
Similar stories revolved around the model 700 for decades. In 1994, a Texas jury ordered Remington to pay $17 million to Glenn Collins, a Texas oil executive whose rifle fired into his foot while he was unloading it, leading to an amputation. A North Carolina woman complained to the gunmaker in 1987 that her rifle, stowed in the front seat of her Jeep, fired when her neighbor kicked the vehicle’s tire. (She hesitated to write the company until the rifle discharged by itself a second time.)
Attorneys for injured sportsmen and other families who lost members to misfiring Remington rifles would eventually bring 75 different lawsuits against the company, which had settled or rebuffed many of those and other claims for as little as $5,000 before the Barbers’ class action settlement offer was made two years ago.
“I’m of the opinion now, that no matter how you slice it or dice it, this is real and this is dangerous,” Barbara Barber said in 2011, as the class action gained steam. “Unless something meaningful happens, these things will be killing our grandchildren’s grandchildren.”
While the agreement reached between the gun company and the plaintiffs spares Remington from blame, the problem was well-known to the manufacturer. An engineer who in 1948 helped design the 700 rifle told CNBC and attorneys in a court deposition that he had proposed a safer trigger design that would reduce the risk of misfire. The alternate design was rejected by the company because it would increase the cost of each gun by 5.5 cents.
For decades, Remington wrestled internally with what to do about the faulty firearms, mulling a voluntary nationwide recall in 1979, 1994, and 2002, before ultimately modifying the trigger mechanism beginning in 2007. But the company was careful not to acknowledge the risk to customers, CNBC reported.
One reason the company was so slow to act on the problem is that gun manufacturers are exempt from many consumer safety reviews and regulations in the United States. At the behest of pro-gun members of Congress, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is legally barred from addressing defects in firearms and ammunition. No gun recall can be initiated by the federal government.
“A firearm that fires a bullet without the trigger being pulled is perhaps the quintessential example of a dangerously unsafe product.”
Filing by the attorneys general of nine states and the District of Columbia
As Catherine Dunn, an investigative reporter for International Business Times, put it in her 2015 investigation into firearms liability, “The result is an only-in-America reality: Paintball guns are strictly regulated by the government, but the genuine article is generally bought and sold with no agency tasked with ensuring the product functions safely.”
The class action against Remington is one of only two recent cases in which a gun manufacturer has agreed to recall a faulty weapon.
Under the proposed settlement, Remington would be required to offer affected consumers a new trigger assembly for the model 700, a refund on the cost of a replacement trigger assembly, or a “voucher code for Remington products in the amount of $12.50” that can be redeemed on the gunmaker’s website. Remington also offered to pay the class action legal costs up to $12.5 million.
If all the millions of Remington owners took the company up on the remedies, it could cost the manufacturer nearly half a billion dollars. But Judge Smith, who still needs to approve the settlement, expressed worries on Tuesday about Remington’s nominal efforts to reach those owners and the “exceedingly small” number of guns repaired so far — less than 25,000, or about one-quarter of 1 percent of all the faulty firearms.
“It seems inconceivable to me that someone would have a firearm that might injure a loved one and not have it fixed,” Smith said.
That’s one reason the settlement terms have drawn heavy criticism from consumer watchdogs and class-action experts.
“Clearly, the not so subtle message is that ‘Your gun is safe; don’t waste your time or part with your gun for purposes of this meritless defect claim by greedy lawyers’,” two Remington 700 owners included in the class action wrote to the court.
Late last month, attorneys general for nine states and the District of Columbia jointly filed an objection to the settlement, arguing that the deal was more about public relations than public safety.
“A firearm that fires a bullet without the trigger being pulled is perhaps the quintessential example of a dangerously unsafe product,” their filing said.
Still, if the settlement is rejected and the case moves toward trial, there’s no guarantee the plaintiffs would win.
“Then,” Mark Lanier, an attorney for the plaintiffs told the court on Tuesday, “you’d have zero guns fixed. Zero.”
A website Remington put up to solicit and process settlement claims, mandated by the court, addresses claimants with a pitch that sounds as if they’ve won a prize.
“If you own certain Remington firearms, you may be eligible for benefits from a class action settlement,” the site announces.
Rather than communicating that the 700 series was marred by known defects, the site informs owners that the lawsuit claimed the guns could “discharge without a trigger pull under certain limited conditions.” It adds, “The lawsuit contends that the value and utility of these firearms have been diminished as a result of these alleged defects. Defendants deny any wrongdoing.” It then invites owners of the weapons to get their updated trigger mechanism, reimbursement for an after-market trigger assembly repair, or $12.50 voucher for Remington products.
Before taking one of those steps, Remington owners are advised to “stop using your firearm.” The note appears near the bottom of the page, and follows language stressing that the recall is voluntary.
[Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images]