In his 17 years as a grocery manager for Safeway, Olen Kelley has been held up five times. But it was the latest robbery four years ago when he was shot by robbers and "thought I was dead," that got Kelley mad enough to file the lawsuit that led to a precedent-setting ruling this week by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The court's decision that the makers and sellers of small cheap handguns may be held liable for injuries inflicted by those weapons is the long-delayed outcome of one harrowing spring morning in 1981.

"I don't see why people should walk out on the street and go to work and have a fear of this happening to them with these cheap handguns," Kelley, 36, said yesterday at a news conference in which he vividly recounted details of that holdup.

"I got to work at 20 before seven on a Saturday . . . . Two men had already forced their way into the store when the employes came to work and locked them in the dairy cooler. I walked in and there were two men, one with a handgun."

They made Kelley open the safe at the Safeway in the Hillandale area of Silver Spring, and "forced me to lay on the floor and then opened the contents of the safe on me," he said. Dissatisfied with the amount of money, the robbers ordered him to open another safe door that had a combination lock, and were enraged when Kelley told them he didn't know the combination.

"One of them hit me on the head with something, I fell forward and then the other guy pulled the trigger. That's when I hit the floor," Kelley said. He had been shot in the shoulder with a Saturday Night Special, the nickname for the small, unreliable guns whose makers and marketers he eventually sued.

Kelley said that, as he lay on the floor waiting for police to arrive, "I thought I was dead and worried what was going to happen to my family."

Kelley spent a week in the hospital and 42 days out of work, before he took his anger to lawyer Howard Siegel of Rockville and said he wanted to do something, although he was not sure what. "I wanted to see what my rights were," Kelley said.

Siegel came up with the innovative approach of suing Roehm Gesellschaft, the West German manufacturer of the handgun used in the holdup.

The suit, which asks for $500 million in damages, had been on hold for several years until the ruling by Maryland's highest court on Thursday. Appellate courts in other states have rejected similar suits, officials for pro-handgun groups said.

The decision means Kelley's case can be heard in U.S. District Court. Siegel also believes Maryland's decision can influence other states to adopt similar rulings. For Kelley, the decision has a simpler meaning.

"I'm pleased because it's time the laws are changed for the public," said Kelley, of Jessup, who has worked for the Safeway chain since he graduated from high school in 1967. He said the purpose of suing was not to make money.

"I've never been out to get the courts to come up with something new so I can become rich overnight," he said. "My purpose is to make it safer."

The robbery itself has left lasting scars on him and his family, however, said Kelley who is married and has a daughter, 7.

"I'm very suspicious of people and sometimes when I come home at night I'm very upset because I've been thinking about it," he said.

One of the men who held up Kelley's store, Freddie Peters, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, and in addition is serving a 100-year sentence in Virginia for two armed robberies, according to Assistant State's Attorney Robert Dean. The other suspect was never caught, he said.

Kelley, who speaks in simple phrases that retain the soft accent of his native West Virginia, said he has never owned a gun and doesn't intend to.

"I'm just a country boy who came to the big city."