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Garrison v. Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

June 12, 2018

SHANNON WAYNE GARRISON and CONNIE SUE GARRISON, Plaintiffs,
v.
STURM, RUGER & COMPANY, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This products liability action arises from injuries Shannon Wayne Garrison sustained from the accidental discharge of his Ruger “Blackhawk” revolver. Following his accident, Garrison filed suit against Sturm, Ruger & Company (Ruger), the revolver's manufacturer, alleging negligence (Count I), breach of the Alabama Extended Manufacturers' Liability Doctrine (AEMLD) (Count II), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability (Count III), and strict liability (Count IV).[1] Ruger has now moved for summary judgment, doc. 36, arguing primarily that its “old-model” single-action revolver was not a defective product, and that its alleged failure to adequately warn Garrison was not the proximate cause of his accident. That motion is now fully briefed, docs. 37; 40; and 42, and ripe for review. After careful consideration of the parties' excellent briefs, Alabama law, and the entirety of the record, the court finds that Ruger's motion is due to be granted.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Thus, “a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue.” Id. at 256. However, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Id. at 255. Indeed, it is explicitly not the role of the court to “weigh conflicting evidence or to make credibility determinations.” Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. Of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (explaining “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge”).

         “[M]ere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Nor will “a . . . ‘scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party . . . suffice.'” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). In short, if “the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial, '” and summary judgment is appropriate. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted).

         II. FACTS

         A. The Accident of September 21, 2014

         On September 21, 2014, Garrison was checking several game cameras he had placed at the Capsy Hunting Club in Winston County, Alabama while riding his ATV through the property. Doc. 41-6 at 3. Garrison was carrying his fully loaded Ruger “Blackhawk” revolver in a holster on his right hip with the firearm's hammer in the full down position, the hammer position he believed was designed to allow for the safe carrying of the weapon. Docs. 41-1 at 9, 15; 31-4 at 17. While driving over an unpaved road, the revolver fell from the holster and discharged upon striking the ground. Id. at 11, 15-16. The bullet struck Garrison's right ankle and traveled upward through his body, seriously injuring him and causing him to fall from the ATV. Id. at 7, 16-18; Doc. 41-6 at 4. Despite his injuries, Garrison managed to use the ATV to return to his truck and then drove to a nearby home for assistance in guiding first responders to his remote location. Doc. 41-1 at 7-8. Garrison was subsequently airlifted to an area hospital where he underwent extensive medical treatment. Id. at 8. To this day, Garrison continues to receive medical treatment for his injuries. Id. at 40-41.

         B. The Mechanical Operation of the Revolver and Alternative Designs

         The Ruger Blackhawk at issue here is part of a line of Ruger “old-model” single-action revolvers. Doc. 37-2 at 3-4. Ruger intended this product line to replicate the look and feel of an iconic firearm, the Colt Model 1873 Single-Action Army Revolver. Docs. 41-3 at 3; 37-4 at 34-35; 37-8 at 50. While Ruger largely retained the aesthetics and basic mechanical functioning of this classic firearm, it used modern materials in constructing the revolver and altered the dimensions and types of some of the gun's mechanical components. Docs. 41-3 at 3; 37-4 at 34; 37-8 at 50. Ruger manufactured its “old-model” single-action revolvers from 1953 until 1973 selling nearly 1.3 million units, including the revolver at issue in this case, which was originally purchased in 1969. Docs. 37-2 at 3-4; 37-8 at 50. The Ruger “old-model” single-action revolver had several distinctive characteristics including its single-action firing mechanism, which requires the user to manually pull the hammer back into firing position before discharging the weapon. Docs. 37-4 at 35-36, 42, 51. In contrast, double-action revolvers do not require the user to manually “cock” the hammer before firing. Doc. 37-4 at 36, 42; 37-8 at 20. The Ruger “old-model” single-action revolver also incorporated a loading gate, a loading mechanism in which the cylinder remains attached to the frame of the gun and is rotated to individually load cartridges. Doc. 37-4 at 33-34; 37-8 at 17, 23. Other styles of revolver use different loading methods. For example, in a “top-break” revolver, the gun's frame is hinged to enable the barrel to be pushed down thereby opening the cylinder and allowing the user to rapidly load the weapon. Docs. 37-4 at 36; 37-8 at 23.

         The Ruger “old-model, ” like its historical predecessor, has an external hammer with four possible resting positions: (1) full-down; (2) safety-notch; (3) loading notch; and (4) fully cocked. Doc. 37-3 at 13. In the full-down position, the hammer rests directly on the firing pin, the mechanism in the revolver which actually strikes the primer on the rear of the bullet causing the gun to discharge. Doc. 37-3 at 13; 37-8 at 29. There is no dispute that, in this configuration, a blow to the back of the hammer can cause the gun to fire accidentally, even if the trigger is never pulled. Doc. 37-3 at 13; 37-4 at 26. Similarly, there is no dispute that placing the hammer in the “safety” position does not fully alleviate the risk of accidental discharge in the event that a sufficiently powerful blow to the hammer is sustained. Docs. 37-3 at 13; 37-4 at 17-18.

         Ruger sold each of its “old-model” single-action revolvers with an instruction manual. Doc. 37-2 at 3. The manual outlined the various hammer positions and explained that “when the hammer is resting in the safety-notch, the gun may be safely carried loaded under all normal conditions.” Id. at 10. The manual also provided bolded precautions for the use of “the older types of single action revolvers” namely that “[t]he gun should never be carried with the hammer resting on the firing pin and a loaded cartridge in the chamber that is aligned with the barrel” because of the danger of accidental discharge. Id. The parties agree that Garrison did not receive an instruction manual when he acquired the revolver from a second-hand purchaser, and that Garrison subsequently made no effort to either acquire a manual or to learn about the firearm's safety features and operating characteristics. Docs. 40 at 11; 41-1 at 33-34.

         The parties also agree that several “passive” safeties capable of alleviating the risk of accidental discharge in the event a fully-loaded firearm was dropped were in use prior to 1970. Doc. 40 at 14-15. One suggested alternative, a “transfer bar” safety, primarily entailed the insertion of a steel bar between the hammer and the firing pin. Docs. 37-8 at 51-52; 41-3 at 4. When the trigger is pulled, the bar raises for the hammer to strike and then transfers the energy of the blow to the firing pin. Doc. 41-3 at 4. Without the bar in place, the hammer is unable to strike the pin to discharge the weapon. Id. The other alternative, a rebounding hammer and hammer block safety, uses a spring to physically force the hammer away from the frame and then seals the hammer in position using a block or a plate. Id. The block only disengages when the trigger is pulled, again effectively preventing the hammer from striking the firing pin in other circumstances. Id. at 4-5. While these “passive” safety features would have prevented Garrison's injuries, no evidence has been presented to indicate that they were actually available for use in fixed cylinder, single-action revolvers sharing the characteristics of a Ruger “old-model” revolver in 1969. See Docs. 37-4 at 38, 41- 42; 37-8 at 52; 40 at 9 (arguing that a “rebounding hammer and hammer block design was available for implementation into the subject revolver”) (emphasis added). It was not until 1973 that Ruger developed and patented a transfer bar safety for use in a single-action revolver. Doc. 37-8 at 51-52.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The complaint pleads four substantive counts related to the revolver. Garrison has conceded that one of these counts—strict liability (Count IV), is due to be dismissed. See Doc. 40 at 19 n.7. Therefore, the court will only address the first three counts.

         A. AEMLD and Negligence Design Claims-Count I and II

         To establish liability under the AEMLD, Garrison must show that “(1) he suffered injury or damages to himself or his property by one who sells a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the plaintiff . . ., if (a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and (b) it [reaches]the user . . . without substantial change in the condition in which it [was] sold.” Casrell v. Altec Indus., Inc., 335 So.2d 128, 132-33 (Ala. 1976). Despite the AEMLD's existence, however, traditional negligence claims, like the one asserted by Garrison in Count I, remain viable. See Tillman v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Co., 871 So.2d 28, 35 (Ala. 2003) (explaining that “the judicially created AEMLD . . . [does not] subsume[] the common-law tort actions of negligence and wantonness”). To prevail on a negligence theory against a manufacturer requires proof of the traditional elements of “(1) duty, (2) breach of duty, (3) proximate cause, and (4) injury.” Yamaha Motor Co. v. Thornton, 579 So.2d 619, 623 (Ala. 1991).

         While these two causes of action remain conceptually distinct, “a plaintiff pursuing a products-liability claim against a manufacturer under either theory can succeed only if the plaintiff establishes that the product at issue is sufficiently unsafe so as to render it defective.” McMahon v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., 95 So.3d 769, 772 (Ala. 2012).[2] Under Alabama law, “[t]he term ‘defective' means that the product fails to meet the reasonable safety expectations of an ‘ordinary consumer, ' that is, an objective ‘ordinary consumer, ' possessed of the ordinary knowledge common to the community.” Deere & Co. v. Grose, 586 So.2d 196, 198 (Ala. 1991); see also Tillman, 871 So.2d at 32 (explaining that “[t]he important factor is whether it is safe or dangerous when the product is used as it was intended to be used . . [in other words] [t]he article sold must be dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community”) (quotations omitted).[3]

         Significantly, “‘certain products whose inherent danger is patent and obvious, do not, as a matter of law, involve defects of a sort that a jury should resolve.'” Tillman, 871 So.2d at 32 (quoting Elliott v. Brunswick Corp., 903 F.2d 1505, 1507 (11th Cir. 1990)) (emphasis in original). In other words, simply because “‘the use of [a] product[] involves some risk'” does not establish the existence of a product defect. Id. (quoting Elliott, 903 F.2d at 1507). Ultimately, the “plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the product was in a defective condition when it left the defendant's control.” Jordan v. Gen. Motors Corp., 581 So.2d 835, 837 (Ala. 1991); see also Bell v. T.R. Miller Mill Co., 768 So.2d 953, 957 (Ala. 2000) (explaining that “the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff to prove that the product left the defendant's control in an unreasonably dangerous condition and not fit for its expected use”). Accordingly, the revolver at issue here must have been defective according to the prevailing consumer standards in 1969, the date of its manufacture, rather than 2014, when Garrison sustained his injury.

         For inherently dangerous products like firearms, defectiveness is only established by proving “that a safer, practical, alternative design was available to the manufacturer at the time it manufactured the [product].” Beech v. Outboard Marine Corp., 584 So.2d 447, 450 (Ala. 1991) (quotation omitted). This entails showing that “(a) [t]he plaintiff's injuries would have been eliminated or in some way reduced by use of the alternative design; and that (b) taking into consideration . . . [a variety of factors] the utility of the alternative design outweighed the utility of the design actually used.” Id. (quotation omitted). However, “simply because a feasible [alternative design] could have been [created] by a proper use of the manufacturer's resources [is not enough to show] that an ‘alternative design' existed.” Id. (quotation omitted); see also Elliott, 903 F.2d at 1508 (11th Cir. 1990) (explaining that “courts cannot burden companies with an immediate duty to revolutionize their industry”).[4] Moreover, to succeed on either a negligence or an AEMLD claim, the plaintiff must provide evidence “establishing the existence of a safer, practical, alternative design for the allegedly defective product—not a design for a different, albeit similar, product, even if it serves the same purpose.” Hosford v. BRK Brands, Inc., 223 So.3d 199, 208 (Ala. 2016); see also Richards v. Michelin Tire Corp., 21 F.3d 1048, 1056 (11th Cir. 1994) (“under Alabama law a plaintiff must prove that a safer, practical, alternative design was available to the manufacturer at the time it manufactured its product” to prevail on a negligent design claim); Brest v. Chrysler Corp., 939 F.Supp. 843, 846 (M.D. Ala. 1996) (noting that the Alabama Supreme Court applies the alternative design test to both negligence and AEMLD theories).

         In the case at hand, Ruger contests only the defective design element of Garrison's AEMLD and common-law negligence claims, arguing that the revolver met the expectations of an ordinary consumer in 1969, and that, in any event, a safer design was unavailable prior to 1970. In response, Garrison notes that alternative designs existed, at least as evidenced by other classes of firearms, and that a factual dispute exists with regard to the safety expectations of a reasonable consumer in 1969. The court will first address the question of consumer expectation before turning to the issue of whether a safer alternative design existed.

         1. Did the Subject Revolver Meet the Reasonable Safety Expectations of an Ordinary Consumer in 1969

         The parties' arguments on this point are easily summarized. In essence, Ruger contends that (1) the subject revolver was state-of-the-art for its time, (2) that no other fixed-cylinder, single-action revolver available in 1969 possessed safety features that would have alleviated the risk of accidental discharge indisputably posed by the firearm at issue here, and (3) that the weapon had existed, in substantially the same form, since the 1950s when it first entered the market. Moreover, Ruger contends that responsible gun owners are uniformly aware that it is unsafe to carry a single-action revolver of this type fully loaded with the hammer down. Ruger maintains ...


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