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Trial lawyers seek big payday in Remington rifle settlement

Plaintiffs' attorneys who negotiated a nationwide class action settlement involving up to 7.5 million allegedly defective Remington rifles are asking a federal court to approve millions of dollars in attorney fees now, even though only a tiny fraction of the guns' owners have indicated they plan to take advantage of the settlement.

The revelations come in court filings ahead of an Oct. 5 deadline to object to the settlement, which is still subject to final approval by the court.

The agreement covers some of the most popular bolt-action rifles in the world, including Remington rifle models 700, Seven, Sportsman 78, 673, 710, 715, 770, 600, 660, XP-100, 721, 722 and 725.

Remington Model 700P
Source: Wikipedia
Remington Model 700P

The 2010 documentary "Remington under fire: A CNBC investigation" explored allegations that a design defect made the guns susceptible to firing without the trigger being pulled, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries.

Remington has always denied that there was any defect and maintains the guns are safe, but under the settlement the company agreed late last year to replace the trigger mechanisms on the guns in question free of charge and to reimburse owners who already had their triggers replaced. The company also agreed to provide product vouchers to owners of guns that are too old to be retrofitted. Some of the models date to the 1940s.

The attorneys from 10 law firms in nine states are seeking $12.5 million in fees and expenses from Remington, the maximum amount allowed under the settlement. Remington has not opposed the request.

"The proposed settlement provides a substantial, certain recovery to a nationwide class, against a formidable array of legal, factual, and procedural obstacles," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote in a Sept. 4 filing in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Missouri.

But in a separate filing that day, the plaintiffs and Remington jointly disclosed that while the agreement covers as many as 7.5 million guns, only 2,237 claims had been filed since forms became available in May, and only 5,390 people had called a toll-free hotline for more information. (The number is 800-876-5940.) Nonetheless, the parties said reaction to the settlement has been "overwhelmingly positive," with only two objections filed as of Aug.14.

The filing noted that the formal claims process does not begin until final approval of the settlement, which is not expected before December. An attorney for the plaintiffs, Mark Lanier, said he expects many more gun owners ultimately to take advantage of the settlement, since claims "typically come in waves."

"Normally we see a quick start, then a lull, then a gradual build up," he told CNBC in an email. "We are not stunned by the numbers now, but do anticipate they will grow significantly over time."

Attorneys for Remington did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Cost control

If the owners of all 7.5 million guns were to file claims, the court filings noted, it would cost Remington more than $487 million. That amount is equivalent to roughly half the total assets of the firm's parent company, Remington Outdoors, which in turn is owned by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management.

But the ultimate cost is unlikely to come anywhere close to $487 million. In large part that's because the settlement covers such a huge time period—nearly 70 years since the first of the guns were produced.

Another factor likely to limit the cost: The agreement specifically leaves out some of Remington's most loyal customers—law enforcement and the military.

"The Model 700 is the firearm of choice for elite shooters from America's military and law enforcement communities," the company told CNBC in 2010.

But the class action settlement excluded "governmental purchasers," potentially leaving thousands of the allegedly defective guns in service.

Several agencies have already taken action anyway. But while individual gun owners who replaced their triggers may be eligible for reimbursement under the settlement, government agencies—and taxpayers—are not.

The Kissimmee, Florida, police department took its lone Remington 700 rifle out of service in 2005 after it went off unexpectedly during a drug raid. The department received no compensation from Remington following the incident, according to police spokeswoman Stacie Miller, and ultimately replaced the gun with a more expensive Sig Sauer TAC2 model.

In Portland, Maine, the police department took its five Remington 700s out of service in 2010 after CNBC broadcast video of Portland officers demonstrating the alleged defect. The police chief said at the time that Remington told the department the guns were not under warranty, so the city used grant money to replace the guns for around $1,500 apiece.

And the Army, which for decades used a modified version of the Remington 700 for its M24 Sniper Weapon System, has also moved to a new trigger system, even though a spokesman said the Army never had any incidents with the old one.

"The Army has divested itself of the M24 Sniper Weapon System," Senior Operations Specialist Peter Rowland of the Army's Picatinny Arsenal told CNBC in an email, converting to a new system known as the M2010, which is also supplied by Remington under a $28 million contract awarded in 2010.

"The M2010 has an enhanced M24 trigger with an improved safety mechanism that has been thoroughly tested by the Army and replacement is not required," Rowland said.

Both police departments and the Army declined to comment on the class action settlement.

Getting the word out

Despite the potential cost of more owners taking advantage of the trigger replacement program, Remington said it is making certain the offer is well publicized.

A third-party claims administrator took out ads in six national magazines between May 17 and July 7, according to a court filing. The campaign has also included banner ads on the Internet as well as targeted ads on Facebook. The ads direct owners to a dedicated website with more information about the settlement.

And despite arguments by some critics that Remington's continued insistence that the guns are safe sends a mixed message to owners, plaintiffs' attorney Lanier said the settlement is a good one "because it gets the rifles fixed."

"I have represented a number of people really hurt by what we believe are misfires," he said. "These guns need to be retrofitted, and remove any doubts about their safety."