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Utah Family Wins Damages From Kmart

September 13, 2001

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Ryan Tait Eslinger was a 19-year-old paranoid schizophrenic whose medication would have made him appear drunk when he walked into a Kmart and bought a shotgun five years ago, lawyers said.

He later killed himself with the shotgun, prompting a lawsuit against Kmart that his family won Wednesday when a federal jury ruled the retailer was negligent in selling the teen-ager the weapon.

The jury deliberated more than six hours and determined actual and compensatory damages of $1.5 million. It planned to return Thursday to decide on punitive damages.

Eslinger’s parents, Sandra and Phil Eslinger, who are seeking $3 million in damages, claimed the 1996 gun sale violated federal law, and that the corporation was negligent when it allowed a 17-year-old store employee to sell the gun.

The Eslingers’ attorney, James McKenna, said the clerk _ a high school acquaintance of Eslinger _ sold the shotgun without seeking proper identification. Eslinger used his passport for the purchase, but that document did not show his address, a requirement for a gun sale.

Medication Eslinger was taking also would have made him appear drunk, which would have been another reason not to sell the gun, McKenna said.

``Nobody knew what they were supposed to do,″ McKenna said.

Kmart attorney Rodney Parker said it wasn’t Kmart’s responsibility to foresee Eslinger’s death, which was ``the tragic outcome of a serious mental illness.″

He said employees had no way to determine Eslinger was mentally ill, because he was neatly dressed and in control of his actions.

``Ryan Eslinger came into this store and lied,″ Parker said. ``There’s no witness who saw him in the store who said he appeared unstable.″

On the gun application form, Eslinger denied he had ever been hospitalized for mental illness or adjudicated mentally defective. That, and other actions he took in the two days it took him to buy the gun and bring it home showed he planned his death, Parker said.

Eslinger was declared legally mentally defective after his 1995 diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He was hospitalized numerous times, including an involuntary commitment in April 1996 after cutting his throat. When he was released, he started taking the powerful anti-psychotic medication Clozaril.

Sandra Eslinger left her son on his own for 24 hours after consulting with his psychiatrist, who said her one-day trip to San Diego on May 23, 1996, to meet her husband, a commercial pilot, would be all right.

``She didn’t see this (suicide) coming, either,″ Parker said. ``Nobody saw it coming. People walk into stores every day and buy things they can use and misuse to hurt themselves or others.″

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