A jury ordered a gun distributor today to pay $1.2 million to the widow of a teacher who was gunned down by a student.
As part of a $24 million judgment in a landmark case targeting inexpensive handguns, the jury pinned most of the fault for the 2000 slaying of Barry Grunow on the gun's owner and on school officials. But the jury ruled that gun distributor Valor Corp. should shoulder part of the blame because it didn't sell the gun with a safety feature, such as a lock, that could have prevented Nathaniel Brazill, 13, from using it.
Pam Grunow sued Valor, contending that the type of small, cheap pistol Brazill used often falls into the hands of juveniles and criminals and can be confused with a toy.
Her attorneys said that the verdict marked the first time a gun distributor was found liable in a death and that it should signal the gun industry to stop selling the weapon they called "a nasty little piece of junk."
"This is a huge victory for safer guns. That's the message that comes out of this," said Allen Rostron, an attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "The jury ruled this company could have distributed a safer gun that would have made it harder for Nathaniel Brazill to commit this murder."
Valor attorney John Renzulli, though, also characterized the verdict as a win, saying it represented a compromise because Grunow had asked for $75 million.
"I think this will have no impact whatsoever on the gun industry nationwide," Renzulli said.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said lawsuits against companies that sell guns are flawed because they don't take into account personal responsibility.
"How can you hold an industry or a gun manufacturer responsible for the criminal acts of an individual?" Arulanandam said.
Both sides said they plan to appeal. Grunow attorney Bob Montgomery said he will ask the judge to order the gun distributor to pay the full $24 million.
The verdict assigned half of the blame to Elmore McCray, the family friend who kept the gun unlocked in a dresser drawer, where Brazill found it. The panel of six women also concluded that the school board was 45 percent responsible for allowing Brazill to bring to school a weapon that he had hidden in his pocket. Valor, the jury ruled, should take 5 percent of the blame.
The panel decided that Pam Grunow deserved $10 million for her loss and that her children -- 7-year-old Samuel and 3-year-old Lee-Anne -- each deserved $7 million.
The judgment against McCray and the school board will not be collected because they were not parties in the case.
Brazill, who was sentenced to 28 years behind bars for killing his teacher, said he pointed the .25-caliber Raven handgun at his favorite teacher to scare him and never intended to pull the trigger.
He stole the gun five days earlier from McCray after being sent home on the last day of school in May 2000 for throwing water balloons. He returned to the school to say goodbye to two girls and became angry when Grunow wouldn't let him inside his classroom.
Valor, with 14,000 licensed firearms dealers nationwide, argued that the gun did what it was designed to do and was not at fault. "If you misuse it and if you fire it at someone then, yeah, you would expect that bad things will happen," Renzulli said.