An Odessa, Mo., gun dealer on Tuesday agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit that arose when the dealer sold a gun to a mentally ill woman who then used it to kill her father.
Attorneys for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which helped the widow with her lawsuit, praised the development and said it sets an important precedent.
“I think this case sends a resounding message to gun dealers across the country that if they put profits over people, we will make them pay with consequences,” said attorney Jonathan Lowy. “We’re taking the profit out of supplying dangerous people with guns.”
Janet Delana of Wellington, Mo., had called Odessa Gun & Pawn Shop and pleaded with them not to sell a firearm to her mentally ill daughter, Colby Sue Weathers. But the dealer sold Weathers a .45-caliber handgun that she used to shoot her father, Tex Delana, in 2012.
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The point of law on which the case turned was called “negligent entrustment.” Janet Delana argued that the gun dealer should not have sold the weapon to a person known or presumed to be potentially dangerous to herself or others.
The settlement hearing was held at the Lafayette County Courthouse in Lexington, Mo. Afterward, Delana was asked what the message of the settlement was.
“Be careful who you sell guns to if that’s your business,” she said. “You can be held responsible for negligent entrustment. So use some common sense and judgment.”
Charles Doleshal, owner of the gun shop, declined to comment on the settlement and referred inquiries to his attorney, who did not respond to an email.
Lowy said the settlement was important because it demonstrated the limitations of a 2005 federal law that gives wide immunity for gun manufacturers and dealers against general negligence claims.
A circuit court in Missouri initially dismissed Delana’s lawsuit, but the state Supreme Court unanimously allowed the case to continue on the legally distinct ground of negligent entrustment. The argument was that because the gun dealer had been warned about Weathers’ mental illness and potential danger, it was negligent to entrust her with a firearm.
A previous lawyer for the gun shop was quoted as saying he was shocked by the Supreme Court’s ruling and was confident the gun dealer’s defense would prevail. The case was proceeding with interrogatories as recently as September, but in October both parties informed the court they had reached a settlement rather than going through with a jury trial.
“The Missouri Supreme Court made clear that federal law does not prevent holding gun dealers liable in cases like this,” Lowy said Tuesday. “There’s no question this case sets a precedent in Missouri and influential precedent across the country. It’s a great success. It’s also the largest settlement against a gun dealer in a case like this since Congress enacted the immunity law.”
Mike Kautsch, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, said the federal law does not specifically provide for negligent entrustment as a cause of action, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the state’s law can be the basis for such an action. He cited a federal district court ruling in Colorado that said basically the same thing.
Kautsch said the negligent entrustment argument was commonly applied in a noncommercial act, such as a person who lends a vehicle to an intoxicated person who then causes harm.
“I think this (settlement) could be cited as persuasive authority for a lawsuit elsewhere if it would be helpful to a plaintiff,” Kautsch said. “It would be the basis for arguing that a state’s negligent entrustment law ought to be defined broadly enough to include a seller of a good used in a way that causes harm.”
The National Rifle Association was asked for comment but did not immediately reply.
Weathers began to exhibit unstable behavior several years ago and eventually was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 2012, she purchased a handgun from the Odessa Gun & Pawn Shop. Fearing for his daughter’s safety, Tex Delana confiscated the gun. A few weeks later, fearing that Weathers might try to buy another weapon with her government check, Janet Delana called the gun dealer and begged them not to sell one to her because she was suicidal.
Delana recalled her words in a deposition for the lawsuit: “I’m begging you. I’m begging you as a mother, if she comes in, please don’t sell her a gun.”
Two days later, on June 27, the dealer sold Weathers the semiautomatic pistol. Within the hour, she had shot her father in the back as he sat at a computer in the family’s dining room.
Weathers was charged in the murder but found not guilty by reason of her mental condition. She is now being held at a state mental health facility in St. Joseph, where her mother visits her at least twice a month.
Delana misses her husband but also is sad for her daughter.
“She will probably be in some type of group-home living for the rest of her life,” she said. “I miss her, but you just power through.”
Alla Lefkowitz, also a staff attorney for the Brady Center, said documents show the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives repeatedly found violations of federal gun laws by the Odessa Gun & Pawn Shop, including failure to conduct a background check, failing to record the results of a background check and selling to someone who acknowledged being a straw buyer for someone else.
“It’s incredibly sad that the ATF didn’t stop them from selling guns in this manner,” Lefkowitz said Tuesday.
The gun dealer continues doing business and, the Brady Center attorneys said, Doleshal said in a deposition that he would still sell to a customer in a case like Weathers’ even knowing now what happened.
But Lowy said the $2.2 million settlement should make dealers think twice. He credited Janet Delana for that.
“She is truly an American hero for channeling her grief and her personal tragedy to make Missouri and America safer,” he said. “And it is going to take heroes like Janet Delana to prevent the epidemic of gun violence in America.”