SAN FRANCISCO -- A San Francisco judge's decision to allow wrongful-death suits against manufacturers of assault weapons could turn into a legal nightmare, gun manufacturers warned yesterday.
Lawyers for victims and firearms groups agreed that the unprecedented ruling on Monday is likely to lead to a surge of lawsuits against gun producers.
Ernest Getto, the Los Angeles attorney for the gun maker who was sued, said the judge's decision could be used against the manufacturer of "any product that could be used lethally."
"The imagination of attorneys in this country is very fertile," he said. "I really can't tell you what the limits are."
Superior Court Judge James L. Warren shook up the gun industry with his decision on Monday allowing victims in the July 1993 slaughter at the law offices of Pettit & Martin to pursue lawsuits against the manufacturer of the TEC-DC9 assault weapons used by Gian Luigi Ferri.
The decision allows the families of the eight people killed and six others wounded to press claims against gun manufacturer Navegar Inc., which is based in Miami. Ferri committed suicide.
Unless it is thrown out on appeal, the case could lead to the first trial of a suit brought by victims seeking damages against the makers of guns for injuries resulting from the criminal use of the weapons.
Gun industry representatives say that Judge Warren's decision stretches the limits of the law by holding them responsible for the actions of a crazed gunman.
But lawyers for victims call it simple justice.
"The weapons manufacturer should have known that its weapon would be used by the criminal element in tragedies just like this one," said San Francisco attorney Dean Alper, who represents one of those wounded in the attack.
So far, the gun industry has been successful in fending off lawsuits brought on behalf of victims gunned down by criminals. Courts that have thrown out the lawsuits have found that the weapons can be used legitimately for hunting or self-defense.
The only exception has been in Maryland, where a state appeals court ruled in 1985 that a victim could sue the manufacturer of a so-called Saturday night special, an inexpensive handgun. But the state legislature stepped in and voided the decision.
Judge Warren's decision, the gun industry says, goes against established law that manufacturers cannot be held liable if a product is legally made and does not suffer any defects. Gun makers predict that Judge Warren's decision will not survive an appeal.