Thursday, March 14, 2019
The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled in the high-profile litigation arising out of the Sandy Hook that defendants may be liable on a theory of knowingly marketing the weapon for offensive operations
From the majority opinion
On December 14, 2012, twenty year old Adam Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and, during the course of 264 seconds, fatally shot twenty first grade children and six staff members, and wounded two other staff members. Lanza carried out this massacre using a Bushmaster XM15-E2S semiautomatic rifle that was allegedly manufactured, distributed, and ultimately sold to Lanza’s mother by the various defendants in this case. There is no doubt that Lanza was directly and primarily responsible for this appalling series of crimes. In this action, however, the plaintiffs—administrators of the estates of nine of the decedents—contend that the defendants also bear some of the blame. The plaintiffs assert a number of different legal theories as to why the defendants should be held partly responsible for the tragedy. The defendants counter that all of the plaintiffs’ legal theories are not only barred under Connecticut law, but also precluded by a federal statute, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), Pub. L. No. 109-92, 119 Stat. 2095 (2005), codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901 through 7903 (2012), which, with limited exceptions, immunizes firearms manufacturers, distributors, and dealers from civil liability for crimes committed by third parties using their weapons. See 15 U.S.C. §§ 7902 (a) and 7903 (5) (2012).
For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we agree with the defendants that most of the plaintiffs’ claims and legal theories are precluded by established Connecticut law and/or PLCAA. For example, we expressly reject the plaintiffs’ theory that, merely by selling semi automatic rifles—which were legal at the time—to the civilian population, the defendants became responsible for any crimes committed with those weapons.
The plaintiffs have offered one narrow legal theory, however, that is recognized under established Connecticut law. Specifically, they allege that the defendants knowingly marketed, advertised, and promoted the XM15-E2S for civilians to use to carry out offensive, military style combat missions against their perceived enemies. Such use of the XM15-E2S, or any weapon for that matter, would be illegal, and Connecticut law does not permit advertisements that promote or encourage violent, criminal behavior. Following a scrupulous review of the text and legislative history of PLCAA, we also conclude that Congress has not clearly manifested an intent to extinguish the traditional authority of our legislature and our courts to protect the people of Connecticut from the pernicious practices alleged in the present case. The regulation of advertising that threatens the public’s health, safety, and morals has long been considered a core exercise of the states’ police powers.
Accordingly, on the basis of that limited theory, we conclude that the plaintiffs have pleaded allegations sufficient to survive a motion to strike and are entitled to have the opportunity to prove their wrongful marketing allegations. We affirm the trial court’s judgment insofar as that court struck the plaintiffs’ claims predicated on all other legal theories.
The court's reasoning
We are confident...that, if there were credible allegations that a firearms seller had run explicit advertisements depicting and glorifying school shootings, and promoted its products in video games, such as ‘‘School Shooting,’’ that glorify and reward such unlawful conduct, and if a troubled young man who watched those advertisements and played those games were inspired thereby to commit a terrible crime like the ones involved in the Sandy Hook massacre, then even the most ardent sponsors of PLCAA would not have wanted to bar a consumer protection lawsuit seeking to hold the supplier accountable for the injuries wrought by such unscrupulous marketing practices. That is not this case, and yet the underlying legal principles are no different. Once we accept the premise that Congress did not intend to immunize firearms suppliers who engage in truly unethical and irresponsible marketing practices promoting criminal conduct, and given that statutes such as CUTPA are the only means available to address those types of wrongs, it falls to a jury to decide whether the promotional schemes alleged in the present case rise to the level of illegal trade practices and whether fault for the tragedy can be laid at their feet.
A dissent would strike the case in its entirety.
In summary, whether this court agrees with Congress or not, in adopting the arms act, Congress adopted findings and statements of purpose in 15 U.S.C. § 7901; see footnote 1 of this dissenting opinion; which made very clear its intent to absolve defendants like these— gun manufacturers and distributors—from liability for criminal use of firearms by third parties except in the most limited and narrow circumstances and, particularly, to shield them from novel or vague standards of liability. This court is obligated, therefore, to construe the predicate exception to the arms act, 15 U.S.C. § 7903 (5) (A) (iii), narrowly in light of that clear expression of congressional intent.