Raines v. Colt Industries, Inc.

Decision Date04 March 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-CV-70391-DT.,90-CV-70391-DT.
PartiesBeverly RAINES, Personal Representative of the Estate of Kent Lanell Raines, Deceased, Plaintiffs, v. COLT INDUSTRIES, INC., a Pennsylvania corporation, and Nathaniel Davis, a Michigan resident, jointly and severally, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Michigan

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

Francis A. Amicone, Michael T. Materna, Fred A. Custer, Southfield, Mich., for plaintiffs.

John E.S. Scott, Richard L. Caretti, Patricia C. Mallon, Dickinson, Wright, Moon, Van Dusen & Freeman, Detroit, Mich., James P. Dorr, Steven E. Danekas, Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon, Chicago, Ill., for Colt Industries.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ZATKOFF, United States District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This is a products liability case in which plaintiff seeks monetary compensation for the death of her decedent. In her complaint, plaintiff avers three counts. Count I outlines plaintiff's claim that Colt Industries ("defendant")1 was negligent in designing and manufacturing its Huntsman semi-automatic pistol (the "gun") and that it failed to warn users of the gun's dangerous propensities. Count II includes allegations that defendant breached expressed and/or implied warranties regarding the merchantability, fitness and safety of the gun and that the gun was expressly warranted to be reasonably safe for its users. Count III contains averments regarding plaintiff's claim for "breach of implied warranty in tort" as to defendant. In their briefs, both plaintiff and defendant acknowledge and insist that this action rests in tort, notwithstanding plaintiff's vague contract averments in the complaint.

This matter now comes before the Court on defendant's Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff has filed a response brief. Both parties have fully briefed the relevant issues, and pursuant to E.D.Mich. Local R. 17(l) the Court addresses the motion without entertaining oral argument.

Upon review of the motion, briefs and file in this case, the Court concludes that any tort duty of care owed by defendant was obviated by the open and obvious dangers associated with the use of its product, and that any act or omission by defendant was not the proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. For these reasons, the Court grants defendant's motion for summary judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

The parties do not dispute the operative facts in this case. Nathaniel Davis ("Davis") shot and killed Kent Raines ("Raines") when Davis held Raines' loaded gun, which was manufactured by defendant, aimed it at Raines, engaged the firing mechanism, and discharged a bullet that fatally struck Raines in the back of the head. Davis and Raines were both minors when the shooting occurred.

Plaintiff, Beverly Raines, is the personal representative of the estate of her son, Kent Lanell Raines. Defendant is the manufacturer of the gun. Nathaniel Davis, a friend of the deceased, fired the fatal shot.

Davis' uncontroverted witness statement, recorded and prepared by the Detroit Police Department, provides a detailed account of the events leading up to the fatal and tragic shooting.

Raines brought his gun with him as he visited Davis at Davis' house. Raines gathered some "little kids" from the neighborhood and took them into Davis' backyard, where Raines started shooting the gun. After a while, Davis entered the backyard and took the gun from Raines because he thought the police would arrive if Raines continued shooting the gun.

At this point, Davis removed the magazine (also known as, and hereinafter referred to as, a "clip"). Davis also peered into the firing chamber. Upon Raines' request, Davis loaded the gun. After loading the gun, Davis reinserted the clip. The relevant portion of the witness statement regarding the examination of the firing chamber, the loading of the gun, and the reinsertion of the clip reads as follows:

I took the clip out the gun. I opened the chamber and looked in it and Raines asked me to load the gun which I did. I then put the clip back in the gun and I stuck the gun in the holster and handed the gun to Raines.

At this point, Raines and Davis walked across the street to a neighbor's house to discuss the possibility of selling cocaine. Raines handed Davis a bag of cocaine, but Davis returned it. Raines then tossed the gun to the ground and Davis and Raines started "pushing each other around and playing."

Raines later ran toward the gun, but Davis pushed him out of the way. Soon thereafter, Raines, with his back to Davis, took some money out of his pocket and began counting it. Intending to scare Raines, Davis picked up the gun, removed it from the holster, removed the clip from the gun, and pointed the gun at the back of Raines' head, waiting for Raines to turn around. Because Raines did not turn around, Davis thought he would scare him by "clicking" the gun.

Davis pulled the trigger and the gun discharged, firing a bullet that fatally struck Raines in the back of the head. When asked why he was trying to scare Raines, Davis replied that "we were playing and he has done that with me before." According to Davis' witness statement, Raines and Davis had been playing with the gun for two days. Police arrested Davis at the scene, and he was later charged as a juvenile for careless use of a firearm. Davis claims that he didn't know the gun was loaded because after he took the clip out, he thought the gun was "empty."

The gun has a 10-cartridge clip that is inserted into the gun for loading. Because the firing chamber of the gun may also be loaded with one cartridge, the gun has an 11-cartridge capacity. The police recovered the pistol and the clip at the scene of the shooting. Laboratory analysis of the clip revealed that it contained 10 cartridges.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate where no genuine issue of material fact remains to be decided and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Blakeman v. Mead Containers, 779 F.2d 1146 (6th Cir.1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). In applying this standard, the Court must view all materials offered in support of a motion for summary judgment, as well as all pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions properly on file in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); United States v. Diebold, 369 U.S. 654, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962); Cook v. Providence Hosp., 820 F.2d 176, 179 (6th Cir.1987); Smith v. Hudson, 600 F.2d 60 (6th Cir.1979), cert. dismissed, 444 U.S. 986, 100 S.Ct. 495, 62 L.Ed.2d 415 (1979). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must consider "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52, 106 S.Ct. at 2512. Although summary judgment is disfavored, this motion may be granted when the trial would merely result in delay and unneeded expense. Poller v. Columbia Broadcasting Systems, Inc., 368 U.S. 464, 473, 82 S.Ct. 486, 491, 7 L.Ed.2d 458 (1962); A.I. Root Co. v. Computer/Dynamics, Ind., 806 F.2d 673, 675 (6th Cir.1986). Where the non-moving party has failed to present evidence on an essential element of its case, it has failed to meet its burden and all other factual disputes are irrelevant; thus, summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23, 106 S.Ct. at 2552-53; Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1355-56, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986) ("When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." (footnote omitted)).

IV. THE PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

Plaintiff filed this products liability suit against defendant under theories of negligence and breach of warranty. Plaintiff argues that defendant's gun was defective because it lacked a magazine or clip disconnect safety device that would render the gun incapable of being fired after the clip has been removed.

Defendant argues that the open and obvious rule obviates any duty that defendant owed to plaintiff. Defendant also argues that the gun lacked a defect. Lastly, defendant argues that there is no causal link between the design and manufacture of the gun and Raines' death. Because the Court finds that Michigan's open and obvious rule is a defense to this action and that defendant's actions did not proximately cause plaintiff's alleged injuries, the Court need not consider defendant's other claim.

V. ANALYSIS
A. Applicable State Law

"Actionable negligence presupposes the existence of a legal relationship — in other words, a duty." Clark v. Dalman, 379 Mich. 251, 150 N.W.2d 755 (1967). Such is true in products liability actions. Glittenberg v. Doughboy Recreational Industries, Inc., 436 Mich. 673, 462 N.W.2d 348 (1990). A prima facie case in a products liability action requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant manufacturer owed the plaintiff a duty of care. The question of whether a duty exists is a legal question to be decided by the court. Glittenberg, 436 Mich. at 682-83, 462 N.W.2d 348 (quoting Smith v. Allendale Mutual Ins. Co., 410 Mich. 685, 713-15, 303 N.W.2d 702 (1981)). In some states, an open and obvious danger associated with the use of a product may obviate the manufacturer's tort duty to warn and/or protect.

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