(NEW YORK) — Det. Brittney Hilton had no idea she had just been shot. All she said she felt at first was an incredible amount of pain, and a “very sick feeling.”
“I was cold at some points, shaking. The fear kind of takes over, the adrenaline takes over,” Hilton told ABC News. “I just said, ‘Am I going to die?’”
“I said, ‘Please just tell my kids that I love them and don’t let them find out on social media that I’ve been shot,’” she continued. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the hospital.”
Hilton, a mom of three who has been with the Bridge City, Texas, Police Department for 11 years, said the bullet came within one millimeter — the edge of a penny — from killing her.
But what Hilton said she also didn’t realize at first was that the bullet had come from her own service gun, a semi-automatic pistol called the P320. It was still holstered inside her purse, according to the police report.
Hilton is now suing gunmaker Sig Sauer over the December 2020 incident.
“Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have believed that my gun would just have shot me,” she said. “Gun owners don’t want to think that their gun can just go off without the trigger being pulled.”
Sig Sauer’s P320 is widely used by police departments across the country, and is a big seller in the civilian market, with about half a million sold nationwide.
But now, P320 is the subject of multiple lawsuits in connection with incidents like Hilton’s, where owners claim the weapon fired without the trigger being pulled.
Hilton said she was inside the Bridge City Police station when her gun went off. She still has the purse with the bullet hole in the bottom.
“I picked up my bag, my keys were on top,” she said. “As I walked around my desk, my purse swings out and it shoots out the bottom of my bag.”
It happened so fast, Hilton said, that she didn’t process what was going on at first, but she smelled the gunpowder.
“And then I took one step, and I felt this pain. It felt like a hot rod of metal had just been placed not only in my private, but through my leg,” she said. “and it [the bullet] exits out [of] my lower buttocks.”
Hilton said she still has pain from her injury.
“There’s never a point that I’m really not in pain unless I’m laying down,” she said.
Attorney Jeffrey Bagnell represents Hilton and several other police officers who have filed individual lawsuits against Sig Sauer over the P320.
“I think it’s a very, very serious safety problem for law enforcement and for the public at large,” Bagnell said. “I’m not aware of any other semi-automatic pistol today that has this problem.”
Hilton’s $15 million lawsuit said, “there have been 54 reported uncommanded discharges of the P320,” meaning the gun went off by itself, over the last five years in 22 states and Washington, D.C.
Sig Sauer did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment. The gunmaker has previously denied liability for these incidents and, in some cases, blamed the plaintiffs for negligence. The gunmaker said in an August 2017 press release that “the P320 meets and exceeds all U.S. standards for safety.”
After Hilton’s incident, the Bridge City Police Department had Sig Sauer examine the gun. In Sig Sauer’s response to the Bridge City Police Department after Hilton’s incident, the company contends that “a foreign object entered the trigger guard (causing) the pistol to discharge.”
Hilton disputes that, saying the gun was holstered in her purse and that it would be near impossible for something to wedge inside the holster and be enough to pull the trigger.
“I’m very pro-gun,” Hilton said. “But this gun is so dangerous, and it just scares me that there are so many out there that don’t know the potential it has to go off.”
There are currently 10 pending lawsuits against Sig Sauer for this particular firearm, all alleging the gun went off on its own. A number of those suing the gunmaker said they are in law enforcement with extensive firearms experience.
“It’s not credible to claim that people with this amount of training, this amount of skill are all shooting themselves,” Bagnell said. “These are experts. It’s happening all over the country. … you would have to conclude there’s a problem with the product, not with the people.”
Virginia Sheriff’s Deputy Marcie Vadnais was injured in 2018 when she said her P320 handgun went off on its own as she was removing the weapon from her belt, still in its holster. She said the bullet hit her in the thigh and shattered her femur.
Sig Sauer settled her lawsuit, without admitting wrongdoing, for an undisclosed amount of money the day after the jury heard Vadnais testify at the start of the trial.
Vadnais said she wants the gun off the market.
“I saw what it did to me. I saw what it did to my family. And I don’t want that to happen to anybody else,” she said.
Bagnell said he’s been pressing Sig Sauer to recall the P320 for years, noting that firearms are not subject to any federal safety regulations.
“If this were a car, a phone, a refrigerator, it would’ve been recalled long, long ago,” Bagnell said. “So I think it is unconscionable, given the number of incidents of this gun defectively discharging without a trigger pull would necessitate that someone order it to be recalled, and only Sig can do that.”
While Sig Sauer has continued to dispute that there is anything wrong with the P320, the company offered what it called a “voluntary upgrade” in 2017, saying, “the upgraded P320 has lighter internal components, including a new thinner-profile trigger and a lighter sear and striker. These upgrades will enhance the protection against unintended discharges if the pistol is dropped.”
Then the gunmaker began manufacturing all P320s with the upgrade.
Vadnais’ P320 handgun was not the upgraded version, however, Hilton’s P320 was the upgraded version and her lawyer is convinced the modifications have not fixed the problem.
“The defect has not been addressed,” said Bagnell.
Peter Villani is a veteran police officer with 35 years of experience, including as a firearms instructor and a Sig Sauer-certified armorer — someone who is certified to repair and inspect a firearm — of the P320. He said he believes there are design flaws and manufacturing issues with the firearm.
“I carry Sig. I own Sig. I just don’t own a [P]320, nor would I ever,” he told ABC News, referring to all models of the P320 pistol, including the upgraded version.
Villani, who is an expert witness for Hilton in her lawsuit, said he began investigating the P320 after an officer in his police department was injured by an upgraded version of the gun.
He also referred to body camera footage captured in 2016 that shows an officer’s P320 firing as he was getting out of his cruiser during a traffic stop.
“Something hit my leg,” the officer can be heard saying on the video. “I don’t know if I’m shot or what… I just for the life of me can’t figure out how that went off.”
A second officer whose body camera captured the incident responded: “Yeah, because there’s no– your seat belt wouldn’t have–“
“No, the trigger was completely covered,” the first officer said. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know… I’m glad you’re my witness.”
“When I see videos of police officers getting out of their car and their weapon discharges in their holsters … There’s a problem with the gun,” Villani said.
Firearms expert and ABC News consultant Joshua Harrison agrees there was a problem with the P320, but he believes it’s been fixed.
“There were a lot of changes. It was expensive, and they would not have done that for no reason at all,” Harrison told ABC News. “In my opinion, the only reason Sig would have done that is if they knew there was a safety problem with the original gun, otherwise they would not have done it.”
Harrison said if indeed there are cases of the upgraded versions of the gun firing on their own, it is unclear what would be causing them to do so.
“I have not seen enough to convince me that the upgraded version’s dangerous,” Harrison said. “I do not have an explanation for why the updated version should have these complaints from trained individuals. If it’s not legal momentum, then it would have to be some other mechanism of failure.”
Still, there are at least two police departments that had safety concerns about the P320 and replaced it with a different gun.
In Philadelphia, the transit police SEPTA swapped out its P320s for Glocks after one of its officers had a P320 go off unexpectedly in 2019. The bullet in that case narrowly missed the officer and a woman nearby.
In Stamford, Connecticut, an officer sued Sig Sauer after he says he dropped his P320 and it shot him in the knee. That department replaced all P320s in 2017.
Hilton said her department in Bridge City is ordering new guns, but in the meantime, many of its officers still carry the modified version of the P320 pistol.
“I have a lot of anxiety every day [over this],” Hilton said. “The fact that I carried my purse into my house every single day and my children were at home … Sig put their life at risk. Sig knows they put their life at risk.”
She said she continues to live with the physical and emotional scars from her incident.
“I think that this gun needs to be removed from the shelf,” Hilton said. “I hope it doesn’t take something fatal, and I’m hoping by bringing awareness to the public that maybe it’ll bring attention to Sig to say, ‘Hey, this gun’s an issue, and before it gets someone killed, take it off the shelf. Stop manufacturing this gun. Find a different solution.’”
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