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Foster-El v. Bereta U.S.A. Corp.

September 28, 2001

JAMES FOSTER-EL ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BERETTA U.S.A. CORP. ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document Nos. 25, 26, 27, 38, 39, 43

MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING THE PLAINTIFFS' MOTION TO STAY PROCEEDINGS

I. INTRODUCTION

This case arises out of a shoot-out that took place in the District of Columbia. Helen Foster-el, an innocent bystander, was caught in gunfire between neighboring youths and killed on June 21, 1999. On June 20, 2000, James Foster-el, her husband, and Michelle Foster-el, one of her daughters (collectively, "the plaintiffs"), individually and as personal representatives of her estate, moved to amend the complaint in a District of Columbia Superior Court case related to the shoot-out, to join the other plaintiffs in that case. The same day, the plaintiffs also filed suit in D.C. Superior Court against various gun manufacturers ("the defendants") alleging liability for Ms. Foster-el's death under various tort theories ("the instant case").

The defendants removed the instant case to federal court. Three months later, the Superior Court judge in the related case allowed the plaintiffs to amend the complaint to join the plaintiffs in the related case. The plaintiffs now move to stay proceedings in the instant case.

II. BACKGROUND

A. The Shooting Incident

On June 21, 1999, Helen Foster-el ("Ms. Foster-el") was injured and killed during a shoot-out between youths in the East Capitol Dwellings housing project in the District of Columbia. See Compl. at 4, 10. Two of the young men were armed with 9-millimeter handguns. See id. at 10. After the firing began, bystanders started to scatter. See id. Some residents ran into their homes or into other neighbors' homes as Ms. Foster-el tried to protect nearby children from harm. See id. As she guided one girl into a house, she was shot in the back and in the leg. See id. Ms. Foster-el died soon after the shooting in front of one of her daughters, Prudence Foster-el. See id.

The police recovered more than 20 9-millimeter shell casings at the crime scene. See id. During the autopsy, one 9-millimeter bullet was found in Ms. Foster-el's chest and another in her leg. See id. at 11. In connection with the shooting, one man has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, another man was found guilty of manslaughter, and two other men have been charged with related crimes. See id.

B. Theories of Liability

The parties have little, if any, disagreement about the facts. Rather, their dispute focuses on who should be held liable for Ms. Foster-el's death. The plaintiffs essentially contend that the gun-manufacturing industry is at fault. *fn1 The plaintiffs allege liability for Ms. Foster-el's death under three different theories. Count I alleges strict liability, Count II alleges negligent distribution of firearms, and Count III alleges that the defendants are collectively liable to the plaintiffs. See id. at 19-21.

In Count I, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants are strictly liable under the District of Columbia's Assault Weapons Manufacturing Strict Liability Act, D.C. Code § 7-2551.01 et seq ("the Strict Liability Act"). See id. at 12-13, 19-20. The plaintiffs claim that the defendants have "manufactured, imported, or sold one or more assault weapons ... or one or more machine guns (as defined by the [D.C. Code])." See id. at 19. According to the plaintiffs, the defendants have proximately caused Ms. Foster-el's death and are liable under the Strict Liability Act. See id. at 12-13, 19-20.

In Count II, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants are liable for negligently distributing firearms in the District of Columbia. See id. at 20-21. According to the plaintiffs, the defendants had a duty "to not create an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm from the distribution of their firearms, and to take reasonable steps to limit this risk once it had been created." See id. at 20. The plaintiffs claim that the defendants breached their duty by, for example, failing: to adequately investigate or screen their distributors and dealers; to adequately monitor, supervise, and regulate their distributors' and dealers' methods of distributing and selling firearms; and to adequately train and encourage their distributors and dealers to ensure compliance with federal, state, and District of Columbia laws. See id. at 17. According to the plaintiffs, the defendants have proximately caused Ms. Foster-el's death and are liable for negligent distribution of their firearms. See id. at 20-21.

In Count III, the plaintiffs allege that, in addition to individual liability, the defendants are collectively liable to the plaintiffs because the defendants' "tortious conduct has collectively caused the ...


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