Tim Chapman, a veteran news photographer who retired earlier this year from the Miami Herald, had been hunting his whole life and obeyed one rule above all: Always assume your gun is loaded and ready to fire. In October 2009, that probably saved his life.
That's when Chapman's Remington Model 700 rifle fired unexpectedly twice. Luckily for Chapman, his hunting savvy ensured the gun was pointed harmlessly into the sky.
Only later did he realize that others haven't been so fortunate. Chapman is now headlining a class-action lawsuit in Miami federal court against Remington alleging that the company has known about a defect in the rifle for decades and done nothing to fix it — despite the fact that hundreds have been wounded and at least a dozen killed.
"My main goal is to get this rifle out of the public's hands," Chapman says. "It is gross negligence on the part of Remington that there's never been a recall."
The Model 700, by some measures, is the most popular hunting rifle ever produced, with more than 5 million sold since it was introduced in 1962. But critics say the company has known about the trigger problem from the earliest days; as early as 1968, Consumer Reports magazine warned of unintended gunshots.
Lawsuits have also haunted the rifle. In 1978, the company paid $6.8 million to a paralyzed man; in 1994, a jury handed down a $17 million verdict. But the company still elected not to issue a recall. Then, in October 2010, CNBC aired a documentary on the rifle in which Mike Walker — the Remington engineer who'd designed the trigger — said that he had found a fix and pushed for a recall but that the company still refused.
That program aired about one year after Chapman's own near-accident. The photog's brush with the defect came in the predawn hours in a deer blind outside Immokalee. He'd just slipped off the safety when the first shot rang out. Horrified and shaken, the photographer checked the mechanism, reloaded, and then was shocked again when a second shot spontaneously fired.
"I used to hunt all the time with my son," Chapman says. "I easily could have killed him."
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Still, Chapman thought he had an isolated problem on his hands until he saw the CNBC show.
Eventually, he hooked up with Jordan Chaikin, a Bonita Springs attorney, who filed a new class-action suit with Chapman as the lead plaintiff. They're asking for financial compensation and a full recall.
Remington hasn't yet responded to Chapman's suit. But it has hotly contested reports of problems with the Model 700, telling CNBC that any errant firings are the result of negligence or bad maintenance. "The Model 700, including its trigger mechanism, has been free of any defect since it was first produced," the company said in a statement.
Chapman scoffs at that answer. "I've been hunting my entire life and never had an accident," he says. "It's an absolute sin for this corporation to keep hiding behind settlements instead of fixing this problem."