Keep Our Families Safe Out of Arms Way:  Injured teen tries to stop gun manufacturer

If a toy gun is hazardous to children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has the power to issue a recall of those toys.  But if a real gun has a defective design, there is no one to stop production or issue a recall.

 "We have an agency to regulate toy guns but no agency to regulate real guns for safety," said Richard R. Ruggieri, the California trial lawyer who, with his client Brandon Maxfield, won a landmark case against gun manufacturer Bryco Arms.

"I'm not against guns," said Ruggieri, "I'm against things that hurt kids."

 When he was seven years old, Maxfield was accidentally shot in the face. The gun involved was a defectively designed Bryco pistol, which discharged while being unloaded.

"The gun design forced the user to set the safety to the fire position to unload the gun," said Ruggieri. It was like having to remove the protective lid to start a food processor, or having to disconnect your seatbelt before you could drive your car.

 As a result of the accident, Maxfield, now 18 and recently graduated from high school, is completely paralyzed below the neck.  For a long time, no one would take his case.  Even Ruggieri said he wasn't sure he was up to the task of challenging a gun manufacturer.

"I'm a solo practitioner.  I knew this case would be difficult and that it would be a huge financial burden and battle," said Ruggieri.

All plaintiff attorneys such as Ruggieri -- not their clients -- pay for the costs of any case they take.  Recouping their trial costs is contingent upon whether they win the case for their clients. If they lose, they receive no fee and not reimbursed for their expenses in working on the case.

"This case is a testament to how we must have a contingency system.  This family couldn't hire a lawyer and pay them up front.  They were poor, and if they tried to make any more money, their son would have been cut off of all public help to pay for his minimum medical requirements." said Ruggieri.  "Without any lawyer, the system would just abandon this kid."

Ruggieri thought about the case for six months, looked at the design of the gun, and then "realized we could win."

No one had won a gun liability case against a manufacturer based on unsafe design until Ruggieri tried Maxfield vs. Bryco.  The jury found gun designer Bruce Jennings, Bryco Arms, and its distributor B.L. Jennings, Inc., partially liable for knowingly designing unreasonably dangerous and defective products.  The Superior Court of the State of California entered a judgment against Bryco Arms, Jennings, and B.L. Jennings, Inc.   

Not only was the gun manufacturer operating without liability insurance, but in the days following the verdict, Bryco and Jennings filed for bankruptcy to avoid paying for Maxfield’s injuries.

Maxfield tried to raise enough money to bid in bankruptcy court for assets of Bryco Arms.  His plan was to stop the production of more defective guns. 

"Brandon was appalled to find out that these guns could still be manufactured and sold.  He's determined and he wants to make a difference.  He has a sense of what's important," said Ruggieri. 

Maxfield was outbid by Bryco's former plant manager Paul Jimenez, who re-opened the company.

"We now know that the money Jimenez used came from the Jennings family," said Ruggieri.

In fact, Jimenez is operating out of the old Bryco plant, making guns similar, if not identical to the Bryco guns, under the name Jimenez Arms.  The gun distribution company, Shining Star Investments, is owned by Janice Jennings, sole shareholder of Bryco Arms, and second ex-wife of Bruce Jennings.

In October, there was an auction of the 20,000 guns remaining in Bryco's inventory.  Ruggieri explained that Maxfield was, once again, outbid by Jimenez who would be forced to destroy only the gun frames but could still make use of various leftover parts.

In January, Ruggieri is slated to be in bankruptcy court to help Brandon collect some of the money the jury ordered Bryco and Jennings to pay.  The lawyer believes Jennings has millions hidden in trusts and partnerships, not to mention an exempt $900,000 Florida home and airplane hangar which he purchased while Maxfield's case was pending.