Connecticut Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Manufacturers Of Rifle Used In Sandy Hook Shooting
A judge in Connecticut dismissed a lawsuit filed against gun manufacturers by relatives of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. According to the judge, the gun manufacturers are protected by a federal shield law which insulates them from civil liability for mass shootings, and the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that this case warranted an exception. Attorneys for the families have promised an appeal, but last week’s ruling puts them at a significant disadvantage in the legal proceedings to come.
Families of Sandy Hook Victims File Lawsuit against Gun Manufacturers
In December of 2014 the families of nine Newtown school shooting victims and one survivor of the attack filed a lawsuit against the companies which manufactured and sold the rifle used to murder 20 children and 6 adults in 2012. The lawsuits named the maker, distributor, and retailer of the AR-15 rifle used in the attack, alleging that the companies ignored the risks of selling a high-powered military-grade rifle to a civilian. According to the lawsuit, the AR-15 is a military weapon with “little utility for legitimate civilian purposes,” and further that the manufacturer and sellers knew they were allowing the rifle to fall into the hands of civilians who were “unfit to operate” the weapon.
The lawsuit requested monetary and injunctive relief with the goal of holding gun manufacturers and sellers accountable for distributing deadly weapons to the public. The defendants first argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the Connecticut court did not have jurisdiction to consider the case due to federal law which covers legal action against gun manufacturers. In April, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis declined to dismiss the lawsuit on procedural grounds by holding her court had jurisdiction to rule on the issue.
The defendants filed a second motion to dismiss, this time arguing that the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was passed in 2005 to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits, precluded the Sandy Hook case.
Connecticut Judge Dismisses Sandy Hook Lawsuit
After failing to have the Sandy Hook lawsuit dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, the defendants filed a substantive defense which focused on the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). According to the defendants, the shooting, while tragic, was not something that the manufacturer, distributor, or seller could have reasonably anticipated. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is designed to insulate companies engaged on weapons commerce from civil liability in all but the most egregious cases of negligence.
The plaintiffs in the Sandy Hook lawsuit argued that their legal action could proceed under the negligent entrustment exception to the PLCAA, which allows for lawsuits against gun manufacturers and sellers “when the seller knows, or reasonably should know, the person to whom the product is supplied is likely to, and does, use the product in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to the person or others.” According to the plaintiffs, the negligent entrustment provision applies because the companies involved in the manufacture and sale of the AR-15 used in the Newtown school shooting sold a dangerous military weapon to an untrained civilian who had no legitimate reason to own a high-powered rifle.
Judge Bellis reviewed the legal history of PLCAA and determined that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof that the negligent entrustment exception applied. In her 54-page opinion, Judge Bellis concluded that because the weapon was sold to Nancy Lanza — the shooter’s mother — who did not commit the crime, the sellers were protected by the PLCAA. Accordingly, the case has been dismissed, but the plaintiffs have already promised to appeal the decision.
Future of the Sandy Hook Lawsuit Uncertain after Dismissal
A central argument in Judge Bellis’ decision to dismiss the Sandy Hook lawsuit pointed out that Congress deliberately limited the negligent entrustment exception to parties who gun manufacturers and sellers dealt with directly. When the bill was passed in 2005, opposition to the limited negligent entrustment provision argued that the legislation would protect companies who made and sold guns used by violent criminals to engage in illegal behavior, yet despite these concerns Congress declined to expand the exception when it passed the bill.
Judge Bellis held that the history behind the PLCAA and its negligent entrustment exception indicated a congressional intent to strictly limit gun commerce liability, and in turn the plaintiffs in the Sandy Hook lawsuit were not entitled to legal relief. Attorneys for the victim’s families have already promised an appeal to a higher Connecticut court, however, there appears to be little reason to question Bellis’ interpretation of the PLCAA. Unless a higher appellate court is inclined to expand the negligent entrustment exception beyond what congressional intent appears to have been, the families of victims of Sandy Hook will not be able to seek civil relief from the manufacturer, distributor, and seller of the weapon used in the attack.