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White v. Punita Group, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

March 18, 2016




This diversity action arises out of the discharge of a firearm at the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania. Pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. (Dkt. No. 35). Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78 and Local Rule 7(J), the Court dispensed with an oral hearing. For the reasons stated herein, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

I. Background

A. Allegations in the Amended Complaint[1]

Plaintiff Nancy White is the sole proprietor of the Pennsylvania-based company, White's Trading and Arms ("White's Trading"). Am. Compl. 2. She is married to Plaintiff Jeffrey White. Defendant Punita Group, Inc. ("Punita Group") is a Virginia company that imports leather goods and outdoor equipment for sale in the United States. Id. ¶ 4. As is relevant here, one of the products that Punita Group imports are gun bags designed to carry handguns and ammunition. Id. Punita Group is a family-owned and operated business: Harsh Sethi owns the company and serves as an officer; his wife, Punita Sethi, is an officer; and their son, Prateek Sethi, is employed as a salesperson. Id. ¶ ¶ 5, 34-35.

In February 2015, the National Rifle Association of America ("NRA") sponsored the week-long Great American Outdoor Show (the "Outdoor Show") in Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania. The Outdoor Show "is the largest consumer sports and outdoor show in the world, " featuring "nearly 1, 100 hunting, fishing, shooting, sports, archery, boating, RV, and outfitter exhibits[;] 200 outdoor seminars and demonstrations daily celebrity appearances[;] and more than a dozen special events and appearances." Id. ¶ 10. In advance of the Outdoor Show, White's Trading entered into an agreement with Punita Group pursuant to which White's Trading would lease exhibition space from the NRA for the purpose of displaying and selling Punita Group's gun bags. In exchange, Punita Group would pay the exhibitor's fee and limit its recoupment to the wholesale value of each bag sold. Id. ¶ ¶ 11-12.

During the show, Jeffrey White "man[ned] the exhibit space ..., answer[ed] questions of potential customers, and ma[de] sales of Punita Group's gun bags." Id. ¶ 13. Prateek Sethi was also there "in his capacity as an employee or agent of Punita Group, " delivering new inventory and selling gun bags. In order to sell the bags, Mr. Sethi was required "to demonstrate the[ir] strength and capacity... by loading the bags with... firearms and boxes of live ammunition." Id. ¶ 40. At a Virginia gun show the month prior, Mr. Sethi had handled customers' guns and demonstrated their placement in the bags' interior holsters. Id. ¶ 41.

Before sending him to the Outdoor Show, Harsh and Punita knew that Mr. Sethi frequently used marijuana and they believed him to be "immature and unreliable."[2] Id. ¶ ¶ 34-35. Shortly before the Outdoor Show, they decided Mr. Sethi could not attend a gun show in Las Vegas alone because he was "young and sometimes made wrong decisions." Id. ¶ 36.

Several days into the Outdoor Show, Mr. White brought three of his personal firearms and four ammunition magazines in order to have them engraved by another vendor. Id. ¶ 13. In accordance with the show's rules, the firearms were not loaded, and he stored them in a latched gun case under one of the display tables. Id. The Amended Complaint alleges that "during a brief moment when Mr. White turned his attention away from Sethi, Sethi seized control of and opened Mr. White's gun case, removed [a] handgun ... and also removed a magazine." Id. ¶ 14. He then "inserted the magazine into the handgun (in violation of the Outdoor Show's rules, which were prominently posted at the entrance of the show), racked the handgun's slide (thereby loading a live cartridge into the gun's chamber and cocking the hammer), pointed the handgun toward the floor in Mr. White's direction, and pulled the trigger." Id. The bullet "pierced" the gun case and hit the floor "approximately five inches from Mr. White's foot." Id. The bullet fragments shredded a cloth tote bag sitting next to Mr. White. Id.

Mr. White immediately restrained Mr. Sethi and another employee removed the gun from his hands. Id. Police arrived on the scene and arrested both Mr. Sethi and Mr. White. Id. ¶ 17. Mr. White, who is "an honorably discharged, decorated United States Marine, a holder in good standing of a Federal Firearms License, and a well-regarded member of the firearms dealer community in Pennsylvania, ... was personally embarrassed, shamed, and humiliated by being arrested by the police and paraded through the Outdoor Show in handcuffs as if he were a criminal." Id.

The same day, White's Trading was ejected from the Outdoor Show, resulting in the loss of sales, commercial embarrassment, and goodwill in the firearms community. Id. ¶ 18. The NRA also banned White's Trading from renting and selling products at all NRA-sponsored trade shows in the future. Id. ¶ 19. White's Trading's invitation to a "highly coveted, commercially valuable" expo that spring was also rescinded. Id.¶ ¶ 20-21.

In addition to commercial injury suffered, the incident also triggered Mr.White's preexisting post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Id. ¶ 28. His symptoms include insomnia, vivid and highly disturbing repetitive flashbacks, extreme anxiety, mental distress, depression, extreme sensitivity to loud noises, outbursts of anger, irritability, rapid changes in mood, excitability, and panic attacks. Id. He also experiences what he describes as "a fight or flight response" when he is able to sleep, during which he either becomes physically violent with persons or objects around him or patrols his house in a semi-conscious state to check for intruders or threats. Id. ¶ ¶ 26, 28. The renewed PTSD and depression have also resulted in cognitive and memory impairment. Id. ¶ 28. Mr. White also suffers from angina or chest pain, which is exacerbated by his anxiety and mental distress. Id. ¶ 28, 32. All of this has required medical and psychiatric treatment. Id. ¶ ¶ 30-31. Mr. White has not been able to work as a consultant to White's Trading or other firearms businesses because he is unable to attend gun shows and similar events without having a panic attack. Id. ¶ 29.

B. Procedural History

The Amended Complaint alleges six Pennsylvania state-law claims against Punita Group and Mr. Sethi: (1) conversion; (2) reckless or grossly negligent handling and discharge of a firearm; (3) reckless or grossly negligent infliction of severe emotional distress; (4) reckless or grossly negligent hiring, training, and supervision; (5) reckless or grossly negligent failure to provide a safe environment; and (6) vicarious liability. (Dkt. No. 43). Plaintiffs are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. Defendants move to dismiss all of Plaintiffs' claims with the exception of Count II for failure to ...

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