Missouri Gun Shop Agrees to Pay $2.2 Million to Settle Wrongful-Death Lawsuit

A selection of handguns on display for sale at a shop in Parker, Colorado, on December 7, 2015. A gun store in Odessa, Missouri, on Tuesday agreed to settle a lawsuit that alleged it negligently sold a handgun to a mentally ill woman, who then used the weapon to kill her father in June 2012. Rick Wilking/Reuters

A Missouri firearms shop on Tuesday settled in a wrongful-death case, an outcome that the gun safety movement views as a precedent that will have national repercussions on gun dealer liability—a view not shared by those in the industry. Odessa Gun & Pawn has agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged it negligently sold a weapon to a mentally ill woman who used the gun to kill her father.

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In her lawsuit, Janet Delana said the Odessa, Missouri, store "negligently sold or entrusted a gun" to her mentally ill adult daughter, Colby Sue Weathers, despite warnings. Delana said she called Odessa Gun & Pawn on June 25, 2012, to urge it not to sell a firearm to Weathers because she posed a safety risk to herself and others. But two days after Delana's call, Weathers bought a handgun from the store. About an hour later, the 38-year-old woman fatally shot her father, Tex Delana.

In May 2012, Weathers had purchased a pistol from the same store. (She had suicidal intentions, and the family took the gun for her safety.) Delana's complaint alleged the store knew or should have known during the June sale that Weathers had a history of mental illness and thus posed a risk to public safety.

Weathers was charged with murder and later found not guilty because of her mental impairment. She was committed to a state mental hospital.

The defense attorneys tried to have the case thrown out on the basis of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. But the state Supreme Court unanimously decided in April to allow the lawsuit to proceed, and it deemed that the gun store could be held responsible for the fatal shooting, despite the PLCAA. The 2005 federal shield law grants firearms companies broad immunity from legal action for weapons used in crimes. The measure has prevented most liability suits brought by gun violence victims and their families from moving to trial. It bars negligence claims, but among its exceptions is "negligent entrustment," which was cited in the Missouri case.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has declared the settlement a landmark victory for the gun safety movement. "Today's settlement sends the latest resounding message to gun dealers across the country that if they don't clean up their act, they will be forced to pay the consequences when they choose to irresponsibly arm dangerous people with guns," Jonathan Lowy, lead counsel for Delana and director of the Brady Center's Legal Action Project, said in a statement Tuesday.

Kevin Jamison, an attorney for Odessa Gun & Pawn, says he disagrees that the case has precedential value because no wrongdoing was admitted. Instead, he tells Newsweek the settlement "allows my client to stay in business, so that's a win for him." He adds, "The Supreme Court surprised us by essentially requiring all clerks at retail—cars, alcohol, chainsaws, what have you—to be better psychologists than the psychologists and pick up on dangerous people. And that's stretching things a bit."

Jamison acknowledged that lawyers in the gun industry likely will need to find defenses in similar cases to throw out such suits from the start. Defense attorneys fought similarly in a case in Connecticut, where 10 families affected by the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting brought a closely watched lawsuit against three gun companies that provided assault rifles to civilians. A judge ultimately dismissed the case, ruling that the manufacturer, dealer and seller of the firearm used in the massacre are shielded by the PLCAA. The families have appealed, with the hope that the Connecticut Supreme Court will hear their argument.

The PLCAA was a campaign issue in the Democratic presidential primary. Hillary Clinton opposed it when she was in the Senate, while Bernie Sanders voted for it when he was in the House.

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