Gun shop suit by wounded cop over straw purchase moves forward

The lawsuit of an Indiana police officer injured in a gunfight with a suspect was allowed to proceed over claims the shooter obtained his gun through alleged negligence by the store.

In 2011, Indianapolis police officer Dwayne Runnels conducted a stop of a vehicle tied to an armed robbery and soon became involved in a shootout with Demetrious Martin, a felon, that left Martin dead and Runnels injured with a round to his pelvis. Martin’s gun, a Smith and Wesson .40, was recovered and traced to local gun store, KS&E Sports.

A subsequent investigation found that Martin, along with his friend Tarus E. Blackburn, visited KS&E two months before the shooting and allegedly Martin selected the handgun in front of store employees for which Blackburn returned alone later that day and purchased. As part of a straw buy, Blackburn handed the gun over to Martin, who due to his criminal record was prohibited from firearm possession, in the store parking lot for $50.

Blackburn was charged and later pled guilty to one count of making a false statement in connection with the acquisition of a firearm, in violation of federal law, picking up twelve months in prison.

This brought a 2013 suit by Runnels against the gunshop, backed by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, alleging negligence by store employees. Attorneys for Runnels, citing negligent entrustment, argued that KS&E’s employees failed in their “duty to exercise reasonable care on selling firearms and to refrain from engaging in any activity that would create reasonably foreseeable risks of injury to others.”

For their part, KS&E contends the act of a third party, Martin, was beyond the scope of their sale to Blackburn while state and federal law insulates them from damages.

After weaving through local trial courts since then, a three-judge panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals on Thursday, in a 2-1 ruling, found that Runnels has enough of a case to proceed, sending it into pre-trail discovery.

“We reach a similar conclusion with respect to Runnels’ contention of negligent supervision of employees and negligent entrustment,” wrote Judge Patricia A. Riley, with Judge Elaine B. Brown in concurrence.

Judge Robert Altice dissented in part in the panel’s ruling, contending state law which allows for protections against gun dealers for later misuse of their firearms, are solid, saying, “Regardless, while the legislature could have – and arguably should have – carved out an exception for straw purchases in subsection, it did not.”

The Brady Campaign backed a similar lawsuit for two Milwaukee police officers against a gun store for negligently selling a pistol to a straw buyer, which yielded a $6 million judgement last year. The group celebrated the decision by the Indiana appeals court.

“This is a huge win that will no doubt send shock waves through the legal community,” said Brady President Dan Gross in a statement. “With this victory, Brady’s Legal Action Project team made it perfectly clear that anyone made the victim of the gun industry’s negligence is owed their day in court and has a right to seek justice. Officer Runnels has put his life on the line defending that justice and he deserves nothing less.”

Citing Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives statistics, the Bradys contend KS&E is one of the “top sellers of guns later used in crime” noting the store sold 529 guns between 1996 and 2000 that were later traced to crimes.