A plaintiff who scored a rare legal win in a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer might be down to his last chance to collect more of his multimillion-dollar judgment.
Brandon Maxfield was 7 when he was shot accidentally by his babysitter as he tried to unload a Bryco Arms Model 38 semi-automatic handgun. The inexpensive pistol was notorious for failure, and a design quirk required the shooter to leave the safety off while unloading it. The incident left Maxfield, now 28, paralyzed from the neck down.
In 2003, a California jury awarded Maxfield $24 million in his case against the owner of Bryco Arms, Bruce Jennings, finding that the handgun that injured him was defective by design. It’s exceedingly uncommon that gunshot victims win liability claims against gun makers, which are shielded by federal law from most claims.
In Maxfield’s case, winning in court was easy compared with collecting the judgment.
In June, the U.S. Department of Justice denied Maxfield’s claim to money that Jennings recently was forced to forfeit to the government. The denial signals what is likely the final chapter in a legal fight that Maxfield’s attorney Richard Ruggieri has waged for more than a decade.
So far, Maxfield’s family has recovered less than $5 million of the judgment, limited to a dedicated trust set up to cover Maxfield’s medical costs. Maxfield’s injuries left him with an estimated $21 million in projected medical expenses over the course of his life.
Ruggieri thought he had an opening after Jennings pleaded guilty to distributing child pornography in 2013, forcing Jennings to sell the Florida home he lived in with his wife and forfeit $500,000 of the proceeds.
In a typical criminal case, that money would go to the crime victim. But because there isn’t a legally defined victim when someone distributes child pornography, the money went to the U.S. Treasury’s asset forfeiture fund.
Ruggieri argued that this interfered with Maxfield’s legal claim to Jennings’ property, which had been on the books since 2006.
“It’s grossly unfair,” he said.
Lawyers for the Justice Department declined repeated requests for comment on the case.
Ruggieri has until Saturday to appeal the decision, which he plans to do. But after years of fighting, neither he nor Maxfield’s family is optimistic that they will recoup the money Jennings owes.
“He’s made a lifetime of avoiding liability,” Ruggieri said. “He’s no dummy.”
Jennings remains in a low-security federal prison in Sumterville, Florida. Phone messages and emails to his attorneys seeking comment were not returned.
Complications with Florida property laws
To make his case in Florida, Ruggieri hired Ed Gaines, a former assistant U.S. attorney with extensive experience in asset forfeiture cases. Gaines thought they had a clear case: Less than a month after Jennings was arrested for distributing child pornography, he added his wife to the deed of their home.
Shielding assets that way is particularly effective in Florida, Gaines said, where state law provides extensive protections for property when the owner files for bankruptcy.
Maxfield had had a lien on the home since 2006, staking his claim should Jennings ever sell.
“The defendant has a long history of using his ex-wives as puppet-nominees to carry out his schemes to defeat or burden recovery by judgment creditors such as our client,” Gaines wrote in a letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Andrejko in November 2012.
In April 2013, Jennings’ wife, Joanne, filed a petition with the court claiming that she was “an innocent third party spouse” who had no knowledge of her husband’s child pornography distribution and that she had a right the couple’s home. Joanne Jennings’ lawyer argues that her client was a crime victim herself and that as a result of her husband’s actions, she was being forced to sell the property.
“Joanne Jennings didn’t commit a crime. She didn’t do anything wrong, and she shouldn’t be victimized or penalized for a crime that her husband allegedly committed,” her attorney, Erum Kistemaker, told Reveal. “I believe she was a victim just the same as any of his other victims.”
Kistemaker said she did not know if the couple still were married.
Shortly after taking control of the property, Joanne Jennings reached a $500,000 settlement with the Justice Department. The agreement required her and her husband to sell the home and stipulated that proceeds from the sale were exempt from collection by any of Bruce Jennings’ creditors, including Maxfield.
Joanne Jennings sold the home later that year for $1.2 million. Email and phone messages left at her current listing in the phone book – with an address less than a mile away from the house she shared with her husband – were not returned.
Gaines doesn’t buy the argument that Joanne Jennings had no knowledge of her husband’s criminal activity and said the Justice Department’s decision to approve the sale contradicted legal precedent.
“It’s like an ostrich putting its head in the sand,” said Gaines, who repeatedly asked the U.S. attorney not to settle with Bruce Jennings.
“They had him by the balls,” Gaines said. “Why didn’t they consider what he had done in the past?”
‘He didn’t feel remorse’
Bruce Jennings was arrested in September 2012, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Joseph Grey knocked on the door of his home in Port Orange, Florida, complete with a 3,500-square-foot airplane hangar.
Grey is part of a joint child exploitation task force with local sheriffs’ offices. In late August of that year, task force agents using a law enforcement version of a popular peer-to-peer file-sharing service traced an IP address used to distribute child pornography to Jennings’ house.
At that point, Grey didn’t know he was about to arrest the man credited as the nucleus of the once-booming market of cheap handguns commonly known as Saturday night specials.
Jennings initially denied that he had distributed illicit files, Grey said. That changed once Grey interviewed Jennings and his wife separately.
“I think he just realized he was caught,” Grey said. “When he saw that we were questioning his wife, I think he realized that he needed to come clean.”
Bruce Jennings pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing child pornography. Law enforcement officials searched his computer hard drives and found 1,490 images and 3,220 videos depicting children being sexually abused and exploited, court documents show.
In an interview earlier this year, Grey described Jennings as being in “the upper tier” of child pornography distributors.
“He was pretty clear that he didn’t feel remorse. He had been a collector for some time,” Grey said. “Some people collect and delete (files) and do that over and over. Some feel comfortable enough that they just keep collecting, and I think that was the case with him.”
While Bryco hasn’t manufactured any guns since Jennings declared bankruptcy in 2003, the day after Maxfield won his lawsuit, Bryco’s handguns remain in wide circulation and routinely are recovered in connection with crimes. Law enforcement officials attribute their popularity to the low price; many Bryco guns were sold new for less than $150 and often changed hands through pawn shops for less.
Maxfield’s case has been credited as the catalyst for a chain reaction that ended up driving Jennings out of business and forcing his competitors to stop production or leave California.
The state passed strict safety testing requirements for gun makers around the same time, and those rules effectively pushed out a group of Southern California gun makers known as the “Ring of Fire.” Many of the companies were run by people with close ties to Jennings.
Jennings, now 66 years old, is scheduled to be released from prison in 2021.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Matt Drange can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattdrange.