Court rejects the Firearms Expert Witness' conclusions with regard to the possibility of the revolver firing without a trigger pull in product liability case

Court rejects the Firearms Expert Witness’ conclusions with regard to the possibility of the revolver firing without a trigger pull in product liability case

Freedom Arms manufactured the Model 83 Revolver, a single-action handgun firing a .454 Casull cartridge, designed for defense against large animals. This revolver incorporated a manual safety feature to prevent accidental discharge. The accompanying manual, available online or through various channels, contained numerous warnings against mishandling and provided explicit instructions on using the safety features. The safety mechanism of the Model 83 revolver involved drawing the hammer into the “safety bar” or “safety notch” position. This action engaged a “hammer block” to prevent the hammer from striking the firing pin and accidentally discharging the weapon. The manual consistently emphasized in bold and capitalized text the critical warning to never handle the Casull revolver with a live cartridge in the cylinder chamber aligned with the barrel and firing pin unless fully prepared to shoot at a target. The manual also included step-by-step instructions on how to engage the “hammer block” safely. It also explicitly advised against carrying the revolver in the field with a live cartridge in the chamber aligned with the barrel and firing pin. The company’s warranty guaranteed the firearm’s quality to the original purchaser, defining terms and limitations, and explicitly stating that the written limited warranty superseded any other implied warranties, such as merchantability or fitness for a specific purpose.

William Hyter bought a used Freedom Arms Model 83 handgun for bear protection but didn’t receive any manuals or instructions upon purchase. Despite his prior experience with firearms, he didn’t seek information about this specific revolver. While metal detecting with his son in a rocky-bottomed creek in bear territory, the handgun fell from his shoulder holster, striking a rock and accidentally firing a bullet into his shoulder. All chambers of the revolver were loaded with live rounds, the safety was disengaged, and the hammer rested directly over a live cartridge when the incident occurred.

After his injury, on October 30, 2019, William and Sandra Hyter filed this action. In their Complaint, they asserted eight causes of action against the Defendants: (1) strict liability, (2) failure to warn, (3) breach of implied and actual warranty, (4) failure to recall/retrofit, (5) violation of consumer protection laws, (6) ultra-hazardous activity, (7) negligence, and (8) punitive damages. Later, Plaintiffs withdrew their cause of action for “ultra-hazardous activity.”

Defendant Freedom Arms, Inc. (“Freedom Arms”), moved in limine to preclude Plaintiffs William and Sandra Hyter’s (“Plaintiffs” or “the Hyters”) expert, Jack Belk and for summary judgment on the Hyter’s claims. Plaintiffs responded in opposition to summary judgment and cross-moved for summary judgment in their favor.

Firearms Expert Witness

Jack Belk Jr. is a firearms expert witness from Idaho. He graduated from the Law Enforcement Minimum Standards School in 1970. Currently, Jack Belk specializes in building, modifying and designing fine sporting firearms as well as analyzing firearms designs and functions.

Discussion by the Court

Belk, as the expert witness presented by the Plaintiffs, outlined two purported design flaws in the Model 83: the absence of a “transfer bar” safety and a “cylinder gap” for checking loaded status. He detailed his methodology in reaching these conclusions, having examined the Model 83 physically and via video. His analysis led him to identify three potential scenarios where the firearm could discharge without trigger manipulation, specifically emphasizing the risk of a “drop fire” incident if the gun fell with the hammer on the firing pin. Belk also discussed alternative designs, referencing the Model 97 and suggesting that a “transfer bar” safety, present in the Model 97, could potentially be implemented in the Model 83 to mitigate or eliminate the risk of unintended discharges.

The Court determined that while Belk suggested the feasibility of incorporating a “transfer bar” safety system from one Freedom Arms handgun to the Model 83, his analysis lacked depth. Although noting structural similarities between the firearms, Belk didn’t substantiate why or how this safety system could be integrated into the Model 83. This analytical gap hindered the Court’s ability to evaluate the scientific validity of his conclusion. Similarly, Belk’s assertion regarding the absence of a “cylinder gap” suffered from the same flaw. Merely identifying a feature in one firearm couldn’t support the argument that its absence in another constituted a design flaw without further analysis or reasoning.

Defendants contended that Belk should be prohibited from asserting that any purported defect directly caused Hyter’s injury due to his lack of employing a specific methodology to evaluate causation. While the Court comprehended the methodology Belk applied—drawing inferences from firearm features and technical experience to derive conclusions about causation—the Plaintiffs failed to establish its reliability as an admissible methodology for presentation to a jury.

Defendants sought to prevent Belk from providing an opinion on the adequacy of warnings for the Model 83 revolver, claiming he lacked qualification for such an assessment. Belk clarified that he did not intend to offer an opinion on this matter, which was evident in his expert report. The Court declined to preemptively exclude an opinion that hadn’t been presented. However, if Belk were to attempt such testimony during trial, Defendants retained the right to object at that time.

Defendants argued to exclude several of Belk’s opinions as irrelevant. The Court agreed that Belk’s opinion about the Model 83’s lack of a “cylinder gap” was irrelevant. Additionally, the Court found Belk’s opinion on causation, specifically regarding a “drop fire” causing Hyter’s injuries, lacked proven reliability. Concerning Belk’s opinion on the Model 83 firing without a trigger pull, the Court agreed that certain aspects—such as the firearm discharging upon impact when held or if the hammer was manipulated—were not relevant to this case. However, Belk’s opinion that the Model 83 could “drop fire,” consistent with the incident where Hyter’s firearm discharged upon being dropped and striking a rock, was deemed relevant. Nonetheless, Belk’s opinions about other ways the Model 83 could fire without a trigger pull were deemed irrelevant to the matter at hand.

Defendants sought to exclude Belk’s opinions under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, claiming they were unfairly prejudicial, risked confusing the issues, and might mislead the jury. Despite narrowing the scope of Belk’s permissible opinions, the Court opted not to impose further restrictions on Belk’s testimony under Rule 403 at that juncture. However, the Court permitted Defendants to renew any Rule 403 objections during Belk’s actual trial testimony if they found it necessary.

Freedom Arms moved for summary judgment dismissing each of Plaintiffs’
strict liability, failure to warn, breach of implied and actual warranty, failure to recall/retrofit, violation of consumer protection laws, ultra-hazardous activity, negligence and punitive damages claims. Plaintiffs withdrew their ultrahazardous activity claim.

Freedom Arms’ motion for summary judgment was granted in part and denied in part by the Court with Plaintiffs’ strict liability claim surviving summary judgment.

Plaintiffs filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, contending that a prior judgment against Freedom Arms in an Ohio case should dictate the outcome of their design defect claim in this case. Additionally, they argued for summary judgment in their favor on multiple fronts: the failure to retrofit or recall claim, breach of warranties claim, causation, negligence claim, strict liability claim, and punitive damages. Freedom Arms countered, stating that Plaintiffs misinterpreted and misapplied the principles of claim and issue preclusion in their argument.

The Court noted that according to Ohio law, for offensive application of issue preclusion, mutuality of parties is crucial, requiring all present parties to be bound by the prior judgment. Plaintiffs sought to use issue preclusion against Freedom Arms but failed to demonstrate mutuality, as the prior judgment in Taylor v. Freedom Arms involved different parties and a distinct incident. Claim preclusion didn’t apply either because the claims in the current case were not part of the same factual background as those in Taylor v. Freedom Arms. The Taylor case involved an incident where a coat snag caused the revolver’s hammer to partially draw back and discharge, a circumstance entirely separate from the incident in the present case.

The Court held that Plaintiffs were not entitled to summary judgment on the Defendant’s duty to retrofit or recall claim or on the issues of breach
of warranties, causation, comparative fault, strict liability, negligence,
or punitive damages.


Freedom Arm’s Motion in Limine to preclude Jack Belk was granted. Freedom Arm’s Motion for Summary Judgment was granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiffs’ Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment was denied. The Court has not arrived on an outcome for this case since the remaining issues involved in this case still await resolution.

Key Takeaways:

In this case, the credibility and admissibility of expert witness testimony, specifically that of Jack Belk, emerged as a pivotal aspect. Belk’s testimony centered on purported design flaws in the Model 83 revolver, including the absence of a “transfer bar” safety and a “cylinder gap.” However, the Court scrutinized the depth and scientific validity of Belk’s analysis. It highlighted a critical analytical gap, particularly regarding the integration of safety systems from one firearm to another, which hindered the assessment of Belk’s conclusions. The Court underscored the necessity for expert opinions to be substantiated with comprehensive reasoning and analysis to be deemed reliable for jury consideration.

Moreover, the Court ruled on the relevance of Belk’s opinions, excluding certain aspects that lacked relevance to the case, such as opinions on the “cylinder gap.” Additionally, the Court scrutinized Belk’s opinions on causation, especially regarding the potential scenarios of the Model 83 discharging without trigger manipulation, emphasizing the importance of a methodology’s reliability in establishing causation.

The Court’s decision not to restrict Belk’s testimony under Rule 403 highlighted the balance between potentially prejudicial or confusing evidence and the need for a comprehensive evaluation during trial. This case emphasized the pivotal role and stringent criteria for the admissibility of expert witness testimony, underscoring the necessity for methodological rigor, relevance, and scientific validity in supporting expert conclusions before presentation to a jury.