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Remington Arms Company has agreed to replace millions of allegedly defective triggers in its top-selling bolt-action rifles. But the company emphatically denies the guns are unsafe. And no, Remington says, the class-action settlement involving as many as 7.85 million guns is not a "recall."
The distinction is critical, according to Gregory C. Keating, an expert on product liability law at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law in Los Angeles.
"If you say 'recall,'" Keating told CNBC, "you're really admitting the product is defective."
Remington says its products are not defective. Keating says admitting anything to the contrary would likely have dire consequences.
"You're just plain afraid of the cascade of claims that's going to come forward," Keating said. "A lot of injury claims might be coming out of the woodwork."
As it is, Remington has received thousands of customer complaints and has been hit with at least 75 lawsuits alleging its iconic 700 series rifles—specifically those with a firing mechanism known as the Walker trigger—are prone to firing without the trigger being pulled. At least 24 deaths and more than 100 serious injuries have been linked to inadvertent discharges of the guns.
Remington maintains the guns are safe and blames all the accidents on user errors.
The company said in a statement it is only agreeing to replace the triggers now "to avoid the uncertainties and expense of protracted litigation."
In fact, nothing in the 46-page tentative settlement agreement filed in a federal court on Friday precludes Remington from continuing to manufacture and sell the Walker trigger. The company has not disclosed its plans.
Remington did discontinue the Walker trigger in some models in 2006 following a settlement with the family of 9-year-old Gus Barber, who was killed during a family hunting trip in 2000. But the company still sells some Walker-equipped models to consumers and to the U.S. military. Under the new settlement, which still must be approved by a judge, only individual customers are eligible for trigger replacements. "Governmental purchasers" including the military and law enforcement agencies are not.
A lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Mark Lanier of Houston, confirmed in an e-mail that the settlement agreement does not include a recall, and does not prevent Remington from continuing to use the design in question.
"A recall is something with legal obligations and indicates an accepted defect," Lanier wrote. "Here, Remington does not believe the firing mechanisms are defective, and there are experts and customers who agree with them."
But Lanier says Remington agreed to replace the triggers anyway "to ensure a satisfied client base."
Keating says it is not surprising that class-action plaintiffs would settle for something short of a recall, as long as the company is willing to offer a replacement.
"If you're getting what you want going forward, do you want to fight about what Remington says looking backward?"
Besides, federal law makes it nearly impossible to force a gun manufacturer to institute a recall. While the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission can order recalls for a wide variety of products, the law governing the agency specifically excludes firearms, under a provision staunchly defended by gun rights advocates.
Remington did twice consider recalling the 700 series, in 1979 and in 1994, but ultimately rejected the idea, in part because of the cost.
Keating says companies that avoid recalls due to liability concerns are repeating a "depressingly familiar pattern" in American business—the company might insulate itself from lawsuits in the near term, but invite future claims if the product continues to malfunction.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that governmental purchasers of firearms are specifically excluded from the Remington class-action settlement.