A U.S. District Court jury decided yesterday that the National Rifle Association must pay $2 million in damages to the family of a Washington man shot to death during a 1979 street robbery with a pistol stolen from an NRA office.
The jury verdict against the NRA included $38,000 more to be paid to the dead man's estate to cover, among other things, his medical bills before his death, pain and suffering, and the cost of his funeral.
"We just felt they the NRA didn't take the necessary precautions to secure firearms. It was total neglect on their part," said one juror after the verdict was announced.
Attorneys for the family argued during a four-day trial that the NRA was negligent when it failed to take security measures to prevent burglaries at the building, and that the negligence caused the death of Orlando Gonzales-Angel, 27, an animal caretaker at the National Institutes of Health. The NRA contended it could not have anticipated the criminal acts that led to Gonzales' death.
NRA attorney Edwin A. Sheridan said yesterday that he will ask Judge Oliver Gasch to set aside the verdict because, he contends, there was no evidence that the NRA was negligent.
The jury award of $2 million to Gonzales' common-law wife and his 2-year-old daughter was four times the amount of compensatory damages that the family's attorneys, James E. Rooks Jr. and Philip Silverman, had asked for in court papers. "The fact that it is the NRA may have had a bearing on the size of the verdict," Sheridan said.
A spokesman for the NRA said the 2 million-member organization--the nation's most powerful lobby for gun ownership--had no comment on the jury verdict.
The family had asked for $2 million in punitive damages against the NRA, but Gasch did not allow the jury to consider that part of the claim and the jurors were not told during the case about that damage request. Gasch said evidence presented during the trial did not support the family's argument that the NRA's conduct had been reckless, which is one of the legal standards in the District for awarding punitive damages.
In negligence cases, compensatory damages are supposed to represent the earnings that would have been available to the family if the deceased person had continued a normal work life. In Gonzales' case, his attorneys had calculated that amount at about $500,000, based on the average life expectancy for a man of his age and his projected earnings. It was not known yesterday how the jury in the case arrived at the $2 million award for compensatory damages.
The jury of four women and two men declined to assess any damages against the owner of the gun, Robert W. Lowe, a now-retired NRA employe who used the weapon for lunchtime target practice at a range in the NRA building.
After the jury's verdict was announced yesterday, Lowe said he was "in a word, relieved." Lowe, a champion marksman and a competition shooter since he was 16 years old, had worked at the NRA for 20 years and was director of its gun collection department at the time of his retirement.
Lowe's gun, a .22 caliber Supermatic semiautomatic pistol, and ammuntion were stolen during a nightime burglary from a locked closet in his office on Nov. 23, l979. The burglars, described in testimony as youths looking for guns, entered the NRA annex building on 16th Street after removing a metal grate that covered an open window.
Four days later, at 17th and T streets NW, Gonzales and another man were confronted by two holdup men, Joseph (JoeJoe) Nicks Jr. and John H. Hart.
According to evidence in the case, Nicks had participated in the NRA burglary and Hart was armed with the pistol stolen from Lowe's office, loaded with a single round. When a fight began between Nicks and Gonzales, Nicks urged Hart to shoot and Hart fired. The bullet struck Gonzales in the back. Nicks and Hart were later convicted of murder.
During the negligence trial before Gasch, Lowe, 64, admitted he often left his pistol in his office at the NRA, unloaded and locked in a closet, and said he knew of no NRA policy that prohibited such a practice. The NRA, while insisting that Lowe had taken adequate security measures, said nevertheless that he had violated NRA rules that employes who bring guns to the office for target practice must take them home at night. The NRA conceded however, that no such rules were distributed in writing to employes.