ATLANTA – The family of a budding Georgia baseball pro who was shot and killed has filed a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer and gun owner.
The Harrell family of Bainbridge alleges Sig Sauer knew their guns could be fired without anyone pulling the trigger but failed to warn owners that this could happen, the lawsuit says was filed in Decatur County Superior Court near the Georgia-Florida line this week.
On December 15, 2021, 21-year-old Dalton Harrell, from Bainbridge, went to play golf with friends at home from Florida A&M University, where he was a star pitcher for the baseball team. Harrell was scouted to possibly play pro ball.
Harrell drove the group’s golf cart and drove his friend Caleb Boutwell back to his truck, the lawsuit says. When Boutwell opened the door of his truck, his 9mm pistol fell out: a Sig Sauer P938. The gun fired when it hit the ground, hitting Harrell in the chest, Boutwell told investigators. Harrell collapsed, fell off the golf cart, and died from his injuries.
With gun violence on the rise nationwide, many families, including those of nine children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, have filed lawsuits to hold gun manufacturers accountable. Judges have dismissed many of the cases, the AP reported. But in the Sandy Hook case, which killed 20 first graders and six adults, the nine families who had sued settled for $73 million in 2022.
According to Georgia State University law professor Timothy Lytton, the lawsuit against Harrell is different from the lawsuit brought after mass shootings and other criminal acts, but is not uncommon. It is a product liability lawsuit, similar to those often filed against car manufacturers or pharmaceutical companies, he said.
“It’s not exotic in any way,” Lytton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is a typical gun liability lawsuit for a gun that fires when it doesn’t fire.”
A 2005 federal law gives gun manufacturers legal protections, but they are not exempt from a lawsuit. According to the Associated Press, there are exceptions where gun manufacturers can be held liable. These exceptions include defects or defects in the design of the gun, negligence, or warranties when purchasing a gun.
Harrell, a 2018 graduate of Bainbridge High School, earned an associate degree from Andrew College in Cuthbert, about an hour south of Columbus, in health sciences and athletic training, according to his obituary.
“Aside from baseball, Dalton enjoyed hunting, fishing, hanging out with his friends, and doing some karaoke,” his obituary says. “He danced like nobody was looking and made you laugh until you cried. His legacy will be to love BIG and laugh often.”
After Dalton’s death, Boutwell told investigators he did not touch the gun, the lawsuit states.
“One of two things is true,” one of Harrell’s attorneys, Ramsey Prather, said in an emailed statement. “Either Caleb Boutwell didn’t pull the trigger, in which case Sig Sauer is clearly liable, or Caleb Boutwell pulled the trigger, in which case Caleb Boutwell is liable.” A jury must decide who is responsible for Dalton’s death.”
New Hampshire-based Sig Sauer did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit does not name a specific dollar amount, but seeks damages for Harrell’s wrongful death, damages to the family for his pain and suffering, and punitive damages against Sig Sauer.
“Sig Sauer erroneously designed the P938 and acted improperly,” the lawsuit states. “Put simply, a gun should not fire unless the trigger is pulled. Sig Sauer’s flawed design poses serious risks of injury and death that far outweigh the usefulness of the design.”
The company’s P320 model has been involved in several accidental shootings, according to The Trace, which focuses on gun-related news. Earlier this year, The Trace and The Washington Post published an investigation showing that more than 100 people claimed their P320s fired at them when they did not pull the trigger, resulting in at least 80 injuries. The weapon was first released in 2014.
The lawsuit isn’t the first filed against the gunmaker over similar “drop-fire” incidents. Another attorney for the Harrell family, Jeff Bagnell of Westport, Connecticut, has represented injured victims in 12 other cases.
“Sig Sauer has known for years of many incidents of its pistols being fired without anyone touching the trigger — mostly when the pistol is simply dropped,” Bagnell said. “Sig Sauer pistols injured nearly 200 police officers and civilians.”
Boutwell was also negligent, the lawsuit alleges, by failing to keep the loaded gun safe and dropping it from his truck.
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