Products Liability Suit Against Gun Manufacturer Can Proceed

In Seamon v. Remington Arms Co., 813 F.3d 983 (11th Cir. 2016), the Eleventh Circuit held that the district court had abused its discretion in excluding the plaintiff’s expert witness’s opinion. The record showed that Kenneth Seamon went hunting in late 2011 and was later found in his elevated tree stand, dead of a single gunshot wound. His rifle was found on the ground below him, its safety mechanism off and a spent cartridge in the chamber. Responding officers estimated the rifle was at least five to ten feet away from Mr. Seamon when it fired. Mr. Seamon’s wife filed suit against Remington Arms Company, alleging her husband had died as a result of a defect in his Remington Model 700 rifle. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to exclude the plaintiff’s expert’s causation opinion and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed.

The unique fire-control system of the Remington Model 700 includes a very small place at which the connector and the sear—the “part of the trigger mechanism that holds back the firing pin”—meet. Id. at 986. Slight movement may cause the “sear to drop and the rifle to fire.” Id. The plaintiff’s expert alleged this system is a design defect because dirt or other interferences may cause the connector to fail to return to position, and the rifle may fire unexpectedly. The expert found such interferences during his examination of Mr. Seamon’s rifle.

When admitting expert testimony, courts must consider whether (1) the expert is qualified, (2) the expert’s methodology is reliable, and (3) the testimony will assist the trier of fact. The district court found the expert’s opinion was unreliable because the expert had “not adequately accounted for possible alternative causes of the shooting” and “had formed his opinions based upon facts not in the record.” Id. at 989.

The Eleventh Circuit found the district court’s conclusions constituted an abuse of discretion. First, the expert provided a reasonable explanation for why he had excluded any alternative theories of the shooting, including the lack of gunshot residue, the position of the body, and the position of the rope around the scope and safety of the rifle. Second, the expert’s opinion was not based on speculation. Instead, the district court improperly “conflated reasonable inference with improper speculation,” and incorrectly noted that the expert had been unable to replicate a jar-off in his testing, when in fact such a test would have been fruitless and was never conducted. Id. The district court also said that there was no evidence of interferences causing the low-sear engagement at the time the rifle fired. While it is impossible to know what interferences were in the rifle at the time it fired, the expert “did find debris in the fire control housing” and such evidence, combined with the rest of the circumstances, could lead to an inference that the debris created a condition that “would have allowed the rile to fire upon being jarred.” Id. at 991.

Because the district court’s grant of summary judgment rested upon its exclusion of the plaintiff’s expert testimony, the Eleventh Circuit reversed both the motion to exclude, and the grant of summary judgment, and remanded the case back to the district court.

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