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Mediation underway to salvage Remington rifle settlement

A landmark legal settlement to replace the triggers in millions of allegedly defective Remington rifles is on increasingly shaky ground, to the point that a mediator has been brought in to try and settle the case once and for all, CNBC has learned. Meanwhile, gun owners are in limbo over what to do about the guns, which allegedly can fire without the trigger being pulled.

CNBC first reported in 2010 about Remington's iconic Model 700 — the most popular bolt-action rifle in the world — and accusations that the company covered up the alleged defect for decades. Lawsuits have linked the trigger design to dozens of accidental deaths and hundreds of serious injuries.

Rich Barber has spent the last 15 years researching nearly every Remington 700 "firing incident" case and complaint and is now a sought-after expert on the guns.
Brandon Ancil | CNBC
Rich Barber has spent the last 15 years researching nearly every Remington 700 "firing incident" case and complaint and is now a sought-after expert on the guns.

Remington has steadfastly denied there is a defect. To this day, the company maintains the guns are safe and that the incidents were the result of user errors. But in 2014, the company agreed in a nationwide class action settlement to replace the triggers, "to remove the distraction of burdensome and protracted litigation." The tentative agreement covers some 7.5 million guns, including the Model 700 and a dozen other models with similar designs — the Seven, Sportsman 78, 673, 710, 715, 770, 600, 660, 721, 722 and 725 rifles, and the XP-100 bolt-action pistol.

But finalizing that settlement has proven difficult, particularly after new reporting by CNBC in December revealed thousands of internal documents detailing what Remington knew. Within hours of the report, the federal judge overseeing the class action settlement, Ortrie D. Smith in Kansas City, Missouri, ordered the parties to go back to the drawing board to craft a more effective way to notify the public about the trigger replacement offer. That is where the process seems to have stalled.

Late Thursday, Smith extended the deadline for a new notification plan until June 10 — it had been due next week — after the parties said that "given the complexity of the issues," they needed more time. It is the third extension the judge has granted.

Meanwhile, multiple sources close to the case tell CNBC that an outside mediator has been meeting with the parties in recent weeks, apparently in hopes of rescuing the settlement. The settlement agreement provides for mediation in case of last- minute disputes, and for binding arbitration if mediation fails. The sources say it is unclear if the case has moved to the arbitration phase. Attorneys for Remington and the plaintiffs did not respond to emails seeking comment.

"It indicates to me that they can't come to terms on an adequate notice to the public," said Richard Barber, a Montana man whose 9-year-old son was killed when a Model 700 rifle went off during a family hunting trip in 2000 and has been searching for answers about the company ever since.

Barber, who is not a party in the class action case but has been sharply critical of both Remington and plaintiffs' attorneys, believes the snag has come "because the court's order (to come up with a clearer way to notify the public) is in conflict with the settlement agreement," which allows Remington to continue claiming the guns are safe.

"The public is confused," Barber said. "I believe Remington has a serious credibility issue."

Meanwhile, owners of the guns — some of which were manufactured as far back as the 1940s — are left with a confusing set of options.

A website set up by the parties to facilitate the settlement includes claim forms owners can submit, but the site does not appear to have been updated in months. And regardless, the trigger replacements won't begin until the settlement is finalized. Owners can also choose to have their gun retrofitted with aftermarket triggers manufactured by other companies, but they would be ineligible for reimbursement under the settlement.

Barber said owners need to do something, however. Otherwise, he added, they could bear some of the responsibility if an accident occurs before the settlement is finalized. He remains hopeful the deal will eventually get done.

"While I have little faith in the system, I want to give it a chance," he said. But he warns, "After that, I'm going to be a bull in a china shop."