The Georgia family of a professional baseball prospect who was shot to death has filed a lawsuit against both the gunmaker and the gun owner.
The Harrell family of Bainbridge claims Sig Sauer knew its guns could fire without anyone pulling the trigger, but failed to warn owners it could happen, according to the lawsuit filed this week in Decatur County Superior Court, near the Georgia-Florida line.
On Dec. 15, 2021, 21-year-old Dalton Harrell of Bainbridge went to play golf with friends while home from Florida A&M University, where he was a star pitcher for the baseball team. Harrell was being scouted to potentially play professional ball.
Harrell was driving the group’s golf cart and gave his friend, Caleb Boutwell, a ride back to his truck, the lawsuit states. When Boutwell opened the door of his truck, his 9 mm pistol fell out: a Sig Sauer P938. The gun fired when it hit the ground and struck Harrell in the chest, Boutwell told investigators. Harrell slumped over, fell to the ground from the golf cart, and died from his injuries.
With a nationwide rise in gun violence, many families, such as those of nine children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, have turned to lawsuits to hold gun makers responsible. Judges have dismissed many of the cases, the AP has reported. But in the Sandy Hook case, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed, the nine families who sued settled in 2022 for $73 million.
According to Timothy Lytton, a Georgia State University professor of law, the Harrell’s lawsuit is different than those filed following mass shootings and other criminal acts, but not uncommon. It’s a product-liability lawsuit, similar to those that are often filed against automobile makers or pharmaceutical companies, he said.
“This is not exotic in any respect,” Lytton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This a garden-variety weapons liability lawsuit for a gun that fires when it’s not supposed to.”
A 2005 federal law offers legal protection to gunmakers, but they are not exempt from being sued. There are exceptions when gunmakers can be held liable, according to The Associated Press. These exceptions include defects or damages in the design of the gun, negligence, or warranty regarding the purchase of a gun.
Harrell, a 2018 graduate of Bainbridge High School, earned associate degrees from Andrew College in Cuthbert, about an hour south of Columbus, in health science and athletic training, his obituary states.
“Besides baseball, Dalton loved to hunt, fish, hang out with his friends, and sing a little karaoke,” his obituary states. “He would dance like no one was watching and make you laugh until you cried. His legacy will be to love BIG and laugh often.”
After Dalton’s death, Boutwell told investigators he had not touched the gun, the lawsuit states.
“One of two things is true,” one of the Harrell’s attorneys, Ramsey Prather, said in an emailed statement. “Either Caleb Boutwell did not pull the trigger, in which event Sig Sauer is clearly liable, or Caleb Boutwell did pull the trigger, in which event Caleb Boutwell is liable. A jury is going to have to decide who is at fault for Dalton’s death.”
Sig Sauer, based in New Hampshire, did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit doesn’t mention a specific dollar figure request but seeks damages for Harrell’s wrongful death, compensatory damages to the family for his pain and suffering, and punitive damages against Sig Sauer.
“Sig Sauer defectively designed and failed to act reasonably when designing the P938,” the lawsuit states. “Simply stated: a gun should not fire unless the trigger is pulled. Sig Sauer’s defective design creates serious risks of injury and death that greatly outweigh any utility of its design.”
The company’s P320 model has been implicated in several unintentional shootings, according to The Trace, which focuses on gun-related news. Earlier this year, The Trace and The Washington Post published an investigation revealing that more than 100 people have alleged their P320s fired on them when they didn’t pull the trigger, resulting in at least 80 injuries. The gun was first on the market in 2014.
The lawsuit isn’t the first filed against the gunmaker regarding similar “drop fire” incidents. Another of the Harrell family’s attorneys, Jeff Bagnell of Westport, Connecticut, has represented injured victims in 12 other cases.
“Sig Sauer has known for years about many incidents where its pistols fire without anyone touching the trigger – most often when the pistol is merely dropped,” Bagnell said. “Sig Sauer pistols have injured almost 200 law enforcement officers and civilians.”
Boutwell was also negligent, the lawsuit alleges, for not safely storing the loaded gun, allowing it to fall out of his truck.