Families of Sandy Hook Victims File Wrongful Death Lawsuit

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 15, 2014

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After two years of preparing evidence and working with attorneys, nine families of victims killed at Sandy Hook Elementary and one survivor have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the company which manufactured the weapon used in the tragic school shooting.  Alleging the gun manufacturer negligently entrusted its product to the shooter, the victims’ families are seeking financial compensation under an exception to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

Sandy Hook Victims’ Families File Wrongful-Death Suit

Two years ago this week, Adam Lanza killed 20 elementary age children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary using a Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S rifle.  The weapon, purchased by his mother, was legally sold at a gun store in East Windsor, Connecticut.  Family members of some of the victims filed the wrongful-death lawsuit against every company responsible for the weapon’s manufacture, distribution, and sale: Bushmaster Firearms, its owner Remington Outdoor Co., Camfour gun distributors, and Riverview Gun Sales where the weapon was purchased. 

The Sandy Hook wrongful death lawsuit details the fire power of the XM15-E2S, specifically pointing out that the large-capacity magazine weapon is capable of firing a full 30-round clip in approximately 2 – 10 seconds depending on whether the weapon is used as fully or semi-automatic.  The lawsuit continues to explain that the XM15 was designed for use by the US Military to maximize efficiency and firepower of the infantry, and that the rifle serves neither a home-defense nor a hunting purpose.

Given the characteristics of the XM15, plaintiffs allege that sale of the rifle to civilians is not only irresponsible, but is done with knowledge of the risks of efficient and deadly mass shootings such as the Sandy Hook tragedy.  The lawsuit alleges that each of the defendants in the rifle’s supply chain knew, or should have known, that the XM15 has no legitimate civilian purpose and thus its sale posed an “unreasonable and egregious risk of physical injury to others.”  Generally lawsuits like the Sandy Hook action are impermissible under the Protection of Lawful Commerce Act, but the plaintiffs are looking to earn success under an exception to the law that permits civil suits against gun sellers for “negligent entrustment” of the weapon.

Sandy Hook Lawsuit Claims Negligent Entrustment

The Protection of Lawful Commerce Act (PLCA) prohibits civil legal action against gun manufacturers and sellers by absolving them of liability for harm caused by their products.  The PLCA has limited exception, however, including one that allows lawsuits for entrusting the weapons to parties who are a known risk to use the gun irresponsibly and to the detriment of others.  Specifically, negligent entrustment occurs when “a 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 … others.”

Whether or not the act of entering high powered, large-capacity rifles into the stream of commerce can be considered negligent entrustment depends on state law, but regardless of political or personal sympathies, the Sandy Hook wrongful-death suit is making a broad argument. Claiming that the manufacture of the XM15 and its sale to civilians negligently created the opportunity for the Sandy Hook tragedy, and similar mass shootings, the plaintiffs are asking the Connecticut court to effectively hold gun manufacturers, distributors, and sellers legally liable for any violent acts perpetrated with assault rifles. 

With such significant implications of the suit, it is clear the plaintiffs are not only seeking financial damages, but are hoping the lawsuit results in changes to laws that allow for the distribution of high powered weapons.

Lawsuit Aims to Change Gun Sale Laws

Family members of Victoria Soto told the Wall Street Journal that part of the motivation for the suit was to discourage the sale of assault rifles like the XM15 to civilians because the general public should not be trusted to own such weapons.  Pointing to other mass-shooting tragedies, the Sotos and co-plaintiffs argue that America’s legal position on the sale and ownership of high-powered guns needs to change in order to avoid similar incidents in the future.  The Sandy Hook wrongful-death claim raises a number of strong arguments, but it will take a willing and sympathetic judge to allow negligent entrustment to broadly encompass any assault rifle transaction. 

The defendants have not responded to the suit either publically or through the proper legal channels, but will no doubt advance an argument that gun sellers cannot anticipate how criminals will use their weapons, particularly when many buyers use the guns responsibly. 

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