TARPON SPRINGS — A local crossbow maker that has faced criticism over the safety of its products has recently settled lawsuits with several customers.
But many are still active, and some additional suits have been filed in circuit court as recently as last month against Tarpon-Springs based Barnett Crossbows, its parent company and an affiliate company.
The lawsuits have similar claims: While using the crossbows, the string snapped back on the shooter’s thumb, causing injuries ranging from fractures to amputations. The issue, the suits say, is that Barnett manufactured its bows without a finger or thumb guard and didn’t have adequate safety warnings included with the bows.
"It’s possible to design this so that it works just as well, but it doesn’t have the risk," said Joseph Saunders, a St. Petersburg lawyer representing several complainants.
Ten cases closed in September after the parties reached settlements, with an 11th settled last month, Pinellas County court records show. At least five have been filed this year between September and November. Others are still active from years ago, were dismissed or have been moved to federal court.
Barnett representatives deferred comment to Chicago attorney Christopher Sheean. Sheean, citing confidentiality, declined to comment on the settlements, other than to say it made "economic sense to resolve the cases for less than what it would cost to try them."
He declined to comment on specifics of pending cases but said in general, Barnett "strongly believes" in its products and makes improvements as it sees fit. He would not say what those changes were or if they came out of the legal disputes.
"Barnett is a responsible company that has continued to make changes to the crossbows," he said. "The bowstring of a crossbow is a hazard that cannot be removed from the product."
Saunders acknowledged the company has taken steps in recent years to make the bows safer, but old models are still circulating online and in stores. Many of the lawsuits mentioned the Jackal, a model that no longer appears on Barnett’s website. Several crossbow models were recalled in December 2016 but for a different problem than what is alleged in the lawsuits.
Barnett was the first company to offer relatively cheap crossbows that were mass produced and sold, said Dave Chevalier, founder of Crossbow Warriors, a group based in Michigan that promotes crossbow safety and education. While a quality crossbow ran for $500 or more, he said, Barnett was selling bows in the $299 range, he said.
"They had to cheapen things up, and that’s how they did it — cutting some of the corners," he said.
The cheapest adult bow listed on the website is the Recruit Recurve for $199.99. The Jackal ran for $349 when it was available, according to Tampa Bay Times archives.
The sport has also grown in popularity thanks to pop culture appearances in The Walking Dead and the Hunger Games, said Bill Pimm, president of USA Crossbows. Barnett, and all crossbow makers, have been forced to improve their quality as popularity rises and more manufacturers pop up.
"As a company, Barnett has improved," he said. "I don’t know the reasons for it, but there’s a lot of competition now."
Some issues can be boiled down to user error, Pimm said, but with Barnett’s older models, there was more going on, he said. Still, when it comes to crossbow safety, both Pimm and Chevalier said there aren’t many resources or requirements.
But at least one organization is trying to change that. Marilyn Bentz, executive director of the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, said her organization is working on developing a curriculum for a crossbow safety certification course.
"The whole sport of using crossbows has expanded so quickly," she said, "I think in some ways the education piece has been overlooked in many states."
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.