It’s been more than three years since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but there are still disputes making their way through the courts. A group of families of the victims have been attempting to sue the manufacturer of one of the shooter’s weapons (along with a distributor and the gun shop where it was sold) for damages and that effort survived a challenge from the defendants today thanks to one state judge. (Newsweek)
In a major blow to gun companies, a judge in Connecticut on Thursday denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by 10 families affected by the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School against the maker of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used in the shooting.
The three gun companies named in the case had argued for the lawsuit to be dismissed under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), or PLCAA for short. It’s a 2005 federal law that provides gun businesses general immunity from civil lawsuits. Connecticut State Judge Barbara Bellis rejected the gun companies’ motion.
The families are suing the maker, distributor and seller of the rifle, which the gunman used to kill 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, in less than five minutes on December 14, 2012. They argue the rifle shouldn’t have been entrusted to the general public because it is a military-style assault weapon that is unsuited for civilian use. They say the gun companies knew—or should have known—about the high risks posed by the weapon, including the ability for a shooter to use it to inflict maximum casualties and serious injury.
Judge Bellis was appointed by Governor John G. Rowland (who was under threat of impeachment when he resigned office and is currently serving his second term in federal prison) and serves at the state level. Her ruling means that the case will move forward, despite clearly running afoul of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, so it’s unclear what her rationale for this decision might be. The law is quite clear on the subject of liability for gun manufacturers and distributors and none of the exceptions which would allow for this suit seem to be in evidence.
The Bushmaster AR-15 used in the crime was, from all reports, free of defects and functioning nominally. The sale wasn’t in question because the weapon was sold to the criminal’s mother and later stolen by the shooter. Still, it’s the sale which the plaintiffs seem to be focusing on, claiming the “negligent entrustment” clause could be in play. How anyone in the supply chain could be guilty of negligent entrustment when the mother (prior to being murdered) was accused of nothing at all is a mystery, but the judge seemed to dismiss that question as something which didn’t need to be addressed at this time. (Hartford Courant)
Judge Bellis ruled on a narrower issue, agreeing with the plaintiffs that she has jurisdiction to continue with the case, but not ruling on whether the federal law blocks the plaintiffs from pursuing their claim.
“At this juncture,” Bellis wrote, “the court need not and will not consider the merits of the plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment theory.”
This is a mystery which will likely have to be cleared up on appeal, depending how this round ends. Responding to the challenge, the plaintiffs are actually citing the PLCAA. How can the basis for the challenge not be relevant to the question at hand? The judge may be sympathetic to the plaintiffs but this case shouldn’t have even gotten this far. Remington still has some deep pockets and can appeal the case as far as need be if they don’t find satisfaction in Judge Bellis’ courtroom. Unless the legal system has been entirely turned on its ear this should be tossed out sooner or later.