The Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday allowed families who lost loved ones in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of school children to sue Remington Outdoor Co Inc in a setback to gun makers, which until now have been largely shielded from liability.
The families of nine of the victims and one survivor have said the manufacturer, along with a gun wholesaler and local retailer, are partially responsible for the carnage at the Newtown, Connecticut, school because they marketed the weapon based on its militaristic appeal.
Adam Lanza, 20, used a Remington AR-15 Bushmaster rifle, a semi-automatic civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16, to kill 20 children aged 6 and 7, as well as six adult staff members, at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. He then killed himself.
Remington on Thursday did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry’s trade association, said it was reviewing the decision and did not have an immediate comment.
Josh Koskoff, one of the lawyers for the victims’ families, said in a statement the families were grateful for the court’s rejection of the gun industry’s bid for complete immunity.
“The families’ goal has always been to shed light on Remington’s calculated and profit-driven strategy to expand the AR-15 market and court high-risk users, all at the expense of Americans’ safety. Today’s decision is a critical step toward achieving that goal,” Koskoff said.
Legal experts have said any appeal of the ruling by the gunmaker would likely be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, where it could face steep legal hurdles.
The 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, has provided the U.S. firearms industry an almost impenetrable defence against lawsuits by victims of mass shootings and gun violence, broadly shielding Remington and others such as American Outdoor Brands Corp, Sturm Ruger & Co and Vista Outdoor Inc from liability stemming from such incidents.
The families had tried to advance the case on a relatively novel argument in gun litigation based on the legal doctrine of negligent entrustment, an argument historically used when someone lends a car to a high-risk driver who then causes an accident.
But the narrowly divided Supreme Court judges rejected that theory in a 4-3 ruling, instead saying the families could bring their claims under a different exemption to the 2005 federal shield law, basing it on a Connecticut consumer protection statute.
The court said PLCAA did not bar wrongful marketing claims and unethical advertising of dangerous products for illegal purposes and that plaintiffs could pursue those claims under state law.
Three dissenting judges rejected that finding, saying the federal gunmaker shield law did not include such exceptions.
The tragedy led then-President Barack Obama to urge federal gun control legislation, but proposals died on Capitol Hill. Since Sandy Hook and subsequent school shootings, most federal efforts at gun control or gun rights expansion have faded and the bulk of firearms legislation has been in state legislatures across the country.