Pellet-gun shot sparks lawsuit against Firewater owner

BY ZHI XIONG | MARCH 27, 2009 7:35 AM

After getting shot with a pellet gun at Firewater Bar, a Texas woman is seeking damages, serving its owner with a lawsuit for keeping the loaded weapon close to patrons.

Sara Ann Preston, of McAllen, Texas, filed the lawsuit Monday in the Johnson County Courthouse against Christine Handley.

Murmurs of “litigious” followed the suit. But whether it’s obvious booze and pellets don’t mix is moot in the face of an Iowa City ordinance that does not allow discharging — or even possessing — weapons loaded with lead missiles.

“Discharging the weapon would be illegal regardless of what they’re shooting at,” said Assistant City Attorney Eric Goers.

On Sept. 13, 2008, staff at Mercy Hospital called in a shooting incident, said Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay.

At Firewater Bar, 347 S. Gilbert St., officers found an “apologetic” shooter — a friend of Preston’s — who admitted to picking up the gun and accidentally sending the pellet into Preston’s right hand, according to police reports.

“We had no idea the pellet gun was behind the bar at that point,” Handley said. “We were shocked, obviously, when it happened.”

Kelsay described the gun as a Crosman pump-type rifle. Pellet guns and other air rifles are not classified as firearms. The former use compressed gas to propel the projectiles instead of explosions.

And, unlike firearms, air rifles are not subject to the same federal and state laws. Cities can make their own rules.

Air rifles not only look similar to firearms, they have comparable injury rates in the hands of people under 19. Between 1993 and 1999, that age group sustained around 122,000 nonfatal injuries from pellet and BB guns, and roughly 143,000 from firearms.

In January, a New Jersey woman died after being accidentally shot in the back by a pellet gun.

Police said the victim and her husband used the gun to kill squirrels.

Handley told police she used her pellet gun to dispatch pigeons.

Preston wants Handley to pay her medical expenses, which include surgery and physical therapy.

The civil suit accuses the bar of negligence; someone allegedly placed the pumped and loaded gun too close to patrons “who are likely intoxicated.”

The lawsuit also accuses Handley of ignoring calls and letters from Preston and her lawyer after initially admitting wrongdoing and promising to pay the medical bills.

Handley said the Monday filing was the first she heard of the case since last September, when the incident occurred.

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