A U.S. District Court judge yesterday overturned a jury verdict that required the National Rifle Association to pay more than $2 million in damages to the family of a man killed with a pistol stolen from an NRA office.
In a 27-page opinion, Judge Oliver Gasch said he was "well aware" that the law allows judges to overturn jury verdicts only in unusual cases. But he concluded that "no juror reasonably could find" that the NRA was negligent or that, even if it were, that its negligence could be related to the murder of Orlando Gonzalez-Angel, who was shot during a street robbery here in November, 1979.
Gonzalez was shot with a .22-caliber target pistol that had been stolen by four teen-agers three days earlier from the office of NRA employe Robert Lowe. Gonzalez' common-law wife and 2-year-old daughter sued both Lowe and the NRA for damages.
After a five-day trial last February, a jury found that Lowe was not liable for damages, but decided the NRA was negligent and should pay the family $2,038,000--four times the amount sought by the family. The jury found that the NRA failed to take adequate security measures to prevent burglaries at its building.
Edwin Sheridan, an attorney for the NRA, which appealed the verdict, said yesterday he and the 2-million-member organization were "obviously very pleased" with Gasch's ruling, adding that it was the "proper thing under the law" for the judge to do.
James E. Rooks Jr., one of the family's attorneys, said yesterday that he had not seen the opinion, but that he expects to appeal the ruling.
In his opinion, Gasch emphasized that the robbery occurred in an annex to the NRA's headquarters on 16th Street NW, not in the headquarters itself. He said evidence at the trial showed that the main building, where guns are kept, is securely locked and has a burglar alarm system. The annex is less secure, but the evidence at the trial showed that NRA officials did not expect employes to keep guns there and did not know that Lowe had kept his gun there.
Gasch concluded that there was no evidence "from which the jury could properly infer that the NRA was negligent because of the unauthorized storage of a firearm in an adjacent, separate annex unit."