Supreme Court Allows Case Against AR-15 Manufacturer To Proceed

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a case from Connecticut filed by the parents of victims of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court declined to take an appeal brought by gun manufacturer Remington Arms appealing a decision that allowed a civil lawsuit filed by the parents of the victims of the December 2012 Sandy Hook shooting to go forward:

The Supreme Court cleared the way on Tuesday for relatives of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims to sue the Remington Arms Company, the maker of the rifle used in the massacre.

The court said that it would not hear an appeal by Remington of a ruling by Connecticut’s Supreme Court that allowed a lawsuit brought by the families of the victims to go forward. The case has been seen as a test of the ability of plaintiffs to pierce the legal immunity of firearm manufacturers in the aftermath of shootings.

The case, Remington Arms v. Soto, was an outgrowth of a suit brought in Connecticut by relatives of those killed in the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 first graders and six educators. The Connecticut case is Soto v. Bushmaster.

The Supreme Court’s announcement that it would not take up the case effectively confirmed that there is a path to challenging a federal law enacted in 2005 that shields gun makers, dealers and distributors from lawsuits after gun-related crimes.

As is the court’s custom, its order denying review gave no reasons.

The Sandy Hook families’ suit used one of six narrow exemptions to the 2005 law to argue that Remington violated Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. The suit said the gun maker recklessly marketed the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle to disturbed young men like the Sandy Hook gunman through product placement in violent video games and advertising pitches like “consider your man card reissued,” and “the opposition will bow down.”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade association, released a statement saying it was “disappointed” in the order.

“We are confident that Remington will prevail at trial,” the foundation said, adding that it believed there was no evidence that the gunman or his mother, who bought the weapon, “were influenced in any way by any advertisement.”

Remington said in legal filings that the Connecticut lawsuit was “widely recognized as a bellwether for the future of firearms litigation nationwide.” After the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a critical portion of the lawsuit could proceed, the company appealed to the United States Supreme Court, saying that the families’ case, if successful, would “eviscerate” the 2005 federal law.

Cato’s Walter Olson comments:

Even given strong public emotion about the Newtown massacre, the claims against Remington are likely to fail in the end — assuming the law and the facts matter — since no evidence has been presented that any gun ad influenced either the shooter or his mother, who had two years earlier purchased the rifle he used. But many gun control advocates have been open in arguing that whether the suit wins or loses, it could serve as a vehicle for extensive discovery that would both inflict financial harm on defendant Remington and perhaps also unearth documents from which political and legal hay might be made in future controversies

The Federal law in question in this case, the Protection of Lawful Commerce In Arms Act was passed in 2005 in the wake of a series of largely unsuccessful lawsuits against gun manufacturers and sellers by crime victims and some large cities which attempted to hold the manufacturers and sellers responsible under traditional tort and products liability law for violence committed by criminals and other gun incidents. Notwithstanding the fact that it was generally winning in court, the gun industry, as well as Second Amendment groups, began to push for a Federal law that would bar most lawsuits against manufacturers and sellers in Federal or State court. The result was the PLCAA, which passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 283-144 and the Senate by a vote of  65-31, this included the votes of  59 Democrats (including Independent Bernie Sanders) in the House and 14 Democrats in the Senate. The law itself is set forth at 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901-7903.

The PLCAA provides, in Sec 7902, that “a qualified civil liability action may not be brought in any Federal or State court.” Sec. 7903(5)(A) defines a ‘qualified civil liability action’ as “a civil action or proceeding or an administrative proceeding brought by any person against a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product, or a trade association, for damages, punitive damages, injunctive or declaratory relief, abatement, restitution, fines, or penalties, or other relief” related to the criminal or other misuse of a weapon. The lawsuit filed by the families of victims and survivors of the Sandy Hook shootings clearly falls within this definition so, unless some exception applies, it would appear that their lawsuit is r clearly barred by the PLCAA and that its only a matter of time before it is dismissed. The exceptions to the bar on lawsuits are covered in 7903( 5)(A)(i-vii), but the attorneys for the Plaintiffs appear to be relying solely on the exception set forth in  5(A)(iii) which provides that a case against a gun manufacturer or supplier can go forward “knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought.” In denying the motion to dismiss, the trial judge and the State Supreme Court relied upon the Plaintiff’s claims under Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act Specifically in connection with this claim, the lawsuit alleges that Remington recklessly marketed the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle to disturbed young men like the Sandy Hook gunman through product placement in video games and other forms of advertising.

Since these rulings from the trial court judge and the Connecticut Supreme Court came in response to a Motion to Dismiss, the rules of court generally require the court to take the allegations in the Complaint as true and then rule if the case can go forward. Based on this, both courts found that the allegations of a violation of the Connecticut law were sufficient and that the case could go forward. This means that the case will proceed back to the trial court, where the Plaintiffs will be able to conduct discovery against Remington and any other Defendants in the case. Ultimately, of course, the Plaintiffs will be required to prove their case, including the elements of the relevant state law. It’s possible that at that point the case could still be dismissed under the PLCAA if the Plaintiffs are unable to make out a case that the state law was violated. Clearly, though Remington would have preferred to see the case dismissed early both because of the bad publicity involved and because discovery could end up making public things they would rather remain private.

Whatever the outcome, this case will be interesting to keep an eye on given the implications it could have for the gun control debate.

FILED UNDER: Guns and Gun Control, Law and the Courts, Second Amendment, Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    You’d think discovery wouldn’t make much difference because surely Remington employees know better than to blurt the truth in emails. Right? Except no, corporate criminals often have lousy criminal tradecraft. They’re scumbags who don’t know they’re scumbags. So somewhere in the Remington servers there will be an email matter of factly commenting on the profit potential of mass murders.

    And that will be interesting.

    ReplyReply
  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Even given strong public emotion about the Newtown massacre, the claims against Remington are likely to fail in the end — assuming the law and the facts matter

    I suspect this is true.

    ReplyReply
  3. Gustopher says:

    Even given strong public emotion about the Newtown massacre, the claims against Remington are likely to fail in the end — assuming the law and the facts matter — since no evidence has been presented that any gun ad influenced either the shooter or his mother, who had two years earlier purchased the rifle he used.

    I think that’s a very narrow reading of the likely case.

    I would expect the plaintiffs to try to put the following question to the jury: does the marketing and sale to the common public of top-of-the-line, military-grade weapons that are unsuitable for hunting or self-defense constitute negligence?

    The common public contains lunatics. And people who will become lunatics the next time there is a full moon. The company knows this and sells weapons that provide a killing power above and beyond what is needed.

    Paint the assault rifle as a weapon of mass destruction. Or moderately-large destruction. Counter the “it’s for collectors” argument with how we don’t allow collectors to collect pipe bombs, or bales of cocaine.

    ReplyReply
    8
    7
  4. Teve says:

    If you need an AR-15 to hunt you are a loser. If you need it to defend your home you should stop being a Somali Drug Lord.

    Ban semi-autos.

    ReplyReply
    13
    4
  5. Cleve Watson says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Why do you assume they are “corporate criminals”? On what basis? That you don’t like guns?

    ReplyReply
    2
    8
  6. Cleve Watson says:

    @Teve: @Teve: I’ll be perfectly happy to give up my semi-autos if the police, private security, and security for all public officials will give up theirs.

    ReplyReply
  7. Chip Daniels says:

    The difficulty with the entire concept of shielding gun manufacturers is that the shooter at Newtown used the gun precisely in accordance with its design.

    ReplyReply
  8. Gustopher says:

    @Cleve Watson: I’ll give up my nuclear weapons when the government gives up theirs.

    I’ll give up my APC when the local police’s SWAT team gives up theirs.

    ReplyReply
    8
    1
  9. @Gustopher:

    The case may never make it to a jury. It could end up being dismissed on a Motion for Summary Judgment after discovery has closed.

    ReplyReply
  10. Mikey says:

    There was another mass school shooting this morning, at a high school in Santa Clarita, CA. Not sure how many dead and wounded.

    ReplyReply
  11. Mister Bluster says:

    Per Bill Handel on KFI Los Angeles. No dead. Several wounded, some critical.
    Second Amendment zealot in custody.

    ReplyReply
    1
    1
  12. grumpy realist says:

    Yeah, there are quite a few people on the left who are peeing themselves with glee, thinking that SCOTUS not taking the case means that there’s been a changeover in the law. No it isn’t, dummies. It’s just saying that this is one of those bog-standard firearm cases which can be handled under existing law and there’s no split circuit decisions that would give SCOTUS a reason to want to fix the inconsistency.

    (Honestly–the number of people both on the left and the right who don’t understand how our legal system works…)

    As Doug says, it’s quite likely this one is going to be decided on SJ.

    ReplyReply
  13. Teve says:

    Cleve will give it up when the police come by and take it. Rambo he ain’t. 😛 😛 😛

    ReplyReply
    1
    1
  14. Teve says:

    Nice of Cleve to let us know so we can put him on The List. 😀 😀 😀

    ReplyReply
    2
    1
  15. Mister Bluster says:

    Hospital is reporting that one of the female victims of today’s High School shooting in Southern California had died.

    Hey! Hey! NRA!
    How many kids have you killed today?

    ReplyReply
    6
    2
  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Cleve Watson:
    You know, back when I was an actual fugitive from justice, when I had valid reason to worry about cops, I was still not a tenth as paranoid as you are about law enforcement.

    So, why is a presumably normal, decent guy living in terror of the police?

    ReplyReply
    9
    2
  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Cleve Watson: Now that we know who you consider your enemies, can you give us a few hints of your allies?

    ReplyReply
  18. Jim says:

    This is a slippery slope. Next will be the manufacturers of vehicles, boats, planes, hammers, bats, screwdrivers, knives, ropes, bricks, and anything that can cause harm.

    ReplyReply
  19. Mister Bluster says:

    hammers, bats, screwdrivers, knives, ropes, bricks,…

    Yeah. These are all the same as guns.
    That’s why that fukstick in Las Vegas used a hammer to break the windows in his hotel room before he threw bats and bricks and screwdrivers down onto the crowd to murder all those people!

    ReplyReply
    10
    1
  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jim:
    Slippery slope, is it? Then the next step on that slope would be pipe bombs, rocket launchers and artillery. Right?

    Duuuuuh.

    ReplyReply
    2
    1
  21. Teve says:

    Next thing you know the stupid government will try to ban my cruise missiles and poison gas stockpile. This Sarin is for self defense!!!

    ReplyReply
    1
    1
  22. Gustopher says:

    @Jim: And when car manufacturers create products that kill more people than necessary*, they tend to go to court.

    *: There is a certain amount of expected death and destruction involving people driving two tons of metal at high speeds a few feet from other people, but there are also standards.

    ReplyReply
    1
    1
  23. Mister Bluster says:

    Hey! Hey! NRA!
    How many kids have you killed today?

    Now it’s two.

    ReplyReply
  24. Gustopher says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Very likely to be dismissed on summary judgement.

    But, I don’t think the Cato folks are right about what the argument the lawyers would try to bring is. Their description is very narrow, and likely easier to dismiss.

    ReplyReply
  25. Kathy says:

    It’s really strange to see one of the most powerful countries in history, deem themselves as so free they can’t afford to offer themselves any protections against mass shootings and overall gun violence.

    ReplyReply
  26. grumpy realist says:

    2 people have died so far from the CA school shooting.

    Hope you Second Amendment fanatics are satisfied with the flow of blood and loss of life. Moloch worshippers, the lot of you.

    ReplyReply
  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Jim: Look up “product liability”, doofus.

    ReplyReply
  28. MarkedMan says:

    @Jim:

    This is a slippery slope. Next will be the manufacturers of vehicles, boats, planes, hammers, bats, screwdrivers, knives, ropes, bricks, and anything that can cause harm.

    All of those manufacturers can be sued under tort law and frequently are. Only gun manufacturers are exempt by special act of Congress.

    ReplyReply
  29. MarkedMan says:

    I would love to hear the libertarian take on this special exemption to tort law the Republicans gave the gun manufacturers. If libertarianism is to ever work it seems it would require an ability for a Citizen to seek justice in the courts. Or is libertarianism just Might Makes Right, end of story?

    ReplyReply
  30. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “So, why is a presumably normal, decent guy living in terror of the police?”

    Obviously I’ve never met the man, but I’ve got to assume that it’s because it’s the only way he can feel important.

    ReplyReply
  31. Cleve Watson says:

    @Gustopher: That doesn’t make any sense at all. You can’t own nuclear weapons and you can’t own an APC with weaponry.

    ReplyReply
  32. de stijl says:

    @Cleve Watson:

    You aren’t very bright.

    Re-read @Gustopher’s comment. Re-read your response.

    Think laterally. You can do this!

    ReplyReply
  33. Teve says:

    @de stijl:

    You can do this!

    No he can’t.

    You know, there might be something to this. Customs regulations can stop firearms from entering the country without violating the second amendment, and liability law can bankrupt the existing manufacturers. If gun nuts won’t compromise, they have no one else to blame when they get steamrolled.

    ReplyReply

Speak Your Mind

*