Gun Maker Ordered to Pay $1.9 Million

By Donna Halvorsen
Portland Press Herald

U.S. District Court jury awarded nearly $1.9 million Tuesday to a Sanford man who was struck in the neck five years ago when a hunting companion’s Smith and Wesson revolver went off accidentally.

“Happy, very happy” was the reaction of Richard Stacey Jr., 26, who was paralyzed as a result of the accident.

The verdict of $1,879,000 – the second largest in Maine history – was returned against the manufacturer of the gun, the Bangor Punta Corp. of Greenwich, Conn., and its Smith and Wesson division.

It followed a 2 1/2-week trial in which Stacey’s attorneys, Michael Latti of Boston and Thomas and John Shorthill of Sanford, presented evidence that the gun’s trigger design was faulty, allowing the weapon to discharge with minimal pressure. The jury found last week, at the end of the liability portion of the trial, that the gun was “defective” and “unreasonably dangerous” and that the design defect was the cause of Stacey’s injury. It found no contributing fault on Stacey’s part.

John Shorthill and Smith and Wesson failed to tell consumers that the Model 19 gun, a .357 magnum revolver, had a “hung-up position” – between “at rest” and “full cock” positions – in which the pressure needed to discharge the gun was only 1 3/4 pounds instead of the usual 10 to 14 pounds. In that position, it was not necessary to put a finger in the trigger guard to make it go off, Shorthill said. Instead, a touch from the folds of the skin of a user’s hand could cause the gun to discharge.

Stacey and several friends were hunting in Acton, where he lived at the time, when the accident occurred on Nov. 8, 1980. Shorthill said the owner of the gun, Robert Waitt, had pulled it out of a holster and was about to unload it, to pass it on to another member of the hunting party, when it discharged.

Recalling the accident on the witness stand, Stacey said he “saw my body lying on the ground,” then “went back inside my body” and went to sleep. “Were you surprised to find you were alive?” he was asked. “Yes,” he replied.

Stacey, 21 at the time, was hospitalized eight months. He is now in a wheelchair with use only of his right hand. He had worked at a variety of jobs, including in his family’s masonry business, after dropping out of high school and was working as a variety store cashier and doing masonry on the side when the accident occurred. He obtained his high school equivalency certificate two years later. Though he is now living with his mother, Carol, in Sanford, Stacey said he expects to return to Florida, where he has lived part of the time because of the weather. Looking at his wheelchair, he said, “They don’t make these with snow tires.”

The jury’s damage award “is going to give more incentive to get the kind of therapy I need and go on and do a lot of things that I’ve wanted to do,” Stacey said, adding, “besides watch TV and do crosswords.” He was referring to remarks to the jury by M. Roberts Hunt, attorney for Bangor Punta, that a large damage award would take away his incentive “to try to be what he can be.” Instead, Hunt suggested, Stacey said he would “spend the rest of his life” watching television and doing crossword puzzles, which Stacey testified was a favorite pastime.

Stacey also testified that although he was told he would always be in a wheelchair, he believes he will walk again. “It’s just something I have to believe because it keeps me motivated,” he said after the verdict. “It keeps me trying, keeps me from lying around in bed all day. I’m up out of bed every day, doing things. I’ll never give up.”

Latti said the jury verdict was in the range he expected, given figures he presented to the jury earlier in the day concerning Stacey’s past medical expenses, lost earning power and lifelong need for personal care. He also asked the jury to come up with its own figure for Stacey’s pain and mental anguish.

“He can never be made whole again physically,” Latti told the jury. “I ask when you consider his damages that you give him and adequate sum of money so that he can live with some independence and dignity and self-respect.”

“That’s the bottom line right there, to be able to live my own life,” Stacey said after the verdict.

He also had a good word for his lawyers. “My lawyers are not only good guys but they’re excellent attorneys as well,” he said, adding, “I should have said that the other way around – they’re excellent attorneys but they’re also good guys.”

Carol Stacey, who had been at her son’s side throughout the lengthy trial, said it was a “great comfort” to her that her son’s needs will be taken care of that and that he will “have the things that he needs to accomplish his goals.”

John Shorthill said Smith and Wesson has made no design changes in the gun since Stacey’s accident. “Hopefully, this case will give them some cause,” he said.