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Tarpon Springs crossbowmaker faces lawsuits over severed thumbs

Published Aug. 21, 2014

William Meredith raised his friend's crossbow for the first time and fired twice. He moved his target back 15 yards and shot again.

This time the bow's string cut through his left thumb, shaving off the top half an inch.

"It was like cutting warm butter," said Meredith, who works in commercial janitorial management in McKinney, Texas.

He vowed never to pick up a crossbow again. He tries not to even look at them.

Meredith, 42, and more than a dozen others with severed thumbs nationwide are suing Barnett Outdoors, a hunting crossbow manufacturer based in Tarpon Springs. At least 15 cases have been filed, with four new ones in July. Most of the cases are still open. The company declined to comment on pending litigation.

Thanks to The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead, there is no shortage of beginners eager to try out crossbows, said William Pimm, president of National Crossbowmen of the USA.

"The market that Barnett really goes to is beginners, because you're talking about a lower-priced crossbow," he said. "Those are the ones who need the education."

No federal agency regulates crossbow safety, so manufacturers and retailers are not required to sell products with thumb guards. Some experienced shooters make their own, and higher-end manufacturers include safety mechanisms on some models.

Warnings on bows aren't common, and neither are retailer-provided lessons for first-time shooters, Pimm said. Instinctively, many beginners place their hands higher up on the bow, as they would when shooting a rifle.

Barnett's Jackal hunting crossbow, which goes for $349, is the most frequently cited weapon in the lawsuits, but shooters filing lawsuits say they have also been injured by other models.

Meredith was new to crossbows, but even experienced shooters can wind up injured. Kevin Lilly of Rossville, Ga., severed his thumb with a Jackal at age 35 during target practice, with 20 years of shooting behind him. The first shot with his new crossbow shattered his thumb.

"The doctor said it was like a 250-pound man taking a 10-pound sledgehammer and hitting my thumb," he said.

Lilly's thumb joint is now fused, which restricts his range of motion. He can't handle a lot of tasks for the roofing business he has run with his father for 20 years.

While Lilly and so many others wait for their lawsuits to be resolved, Meredith has his legal closure. Last year, Barnett and Meredith came to a settlement; the details are confidential.

"I just want them to make the safety changes necessary to protect the public," said Meredith, who added that he's not bitter, just hopeful for higher quality products.

The accident left Meredith with nerve damage. In five-second spurts, a painful tingling sensation radiates throughout his thumb. His loss of dexterity sometimes trips him up, like when he goes to fasten his top button so he can wear a tie.

"You're looking at an appendage partially gone,'' he said. It's "nothing that I wish on my worst enemy."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Julie Kliegman at jkliegman@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow @jmkliegman.

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