Gun distributor ordered to pay $1.2 million to teacher's widow

Friday, November 15, 2002

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A jury ordered a gun distributor Thursday to pay $1.2 million to the widow of a teacher gunned down by a 13-year-old student in a landmark case targeting inexpensive handguns.

As part of a $24 million judgment, the jury pinned most of the fault for the 2000 slaying of Barry Grunow on the gun's owner and school officials. But the jury ruled gun distributor Valor Corp. should shoulder part of that blame because it didn't sell the gun with a safety feature, such as a lock, that could have prevented Nathaniel Brazill from using it.

Widow Pam Grunow sued Valor claiming 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 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."

Ruled a compromise

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," he said.

Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said lawsuits against companies that sell guns are flawed because they don't take into account personal responsibility.

Both sides say they plan to appeal.

Grunow attorney Bob Montgomery said he would 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 found the School Board was 45 percent responsible for allowing Brazill to bring a weapon that he hid in his pocket onto campus.

Brazill, who was sentenced to 28 years behind bars for killing his teacher, said he pointed .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 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 Corp., with 14,000 licensed firearms dealers nationwide, argued that the gun did what it was designed to do and wasn't 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.

Attorneys for Grunow said the gun, commonly known as a "Saturday Night Special," has no purpose. They said it's too unreliable and isn't used by collectors, law enforcement officers or the military, or for target practice, hunting or self-defense.

"Pam wanted to vindicate to whatever extent she could this terrible tragedy that's been visited on everybody -- her, Nathaniel Brazill, McCray, all the families -- by showing that this 'Saturday Night Special' has no business being in commerce," Montgomery said. "And consequently I think that we've done that."

Montgomery, known for successfully spearheading the state's efforts to sue Big Tobacco for $11.3 billion, said he hoped this case would provide a similar blow to the gun industry.

Grunow earlier sued McCray and the Hypoluxo Pawn Shop where the gun was purchased. Those lawsuits were settled for a total of $575,000. She had previously agreed not to sue the Palm Beach County School Board in exchange for a $245,000 annuity that would provide income equal to the amount her husband would have earned before retirement.

The annuity is in addition to the workers compensation, life insurance and state retirement fund money she will receive.

The gun manufacturer, Raven Arms Inc., is no longer in business.

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