On March 14th of this year, the Connecticut Supreme Court narrowly held that Remington Arms Company could be sued by the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. This holding was based on what the court majority called “one narrow legal theory.” What has been decided is that the plaintiffs are “entitled to have the opportunity to prove their … allegations”. To be clear, this is not a ruling against Remington in the sense that many believe it is. What has been determined is that the plaintiffs have offered one argument that the court has not deemed immediately worth dismissing.
Those who are familiar with the events of December 14th, 2012 may wish to skip this segment. On that day a twenty-year-old man whose name I will not be repeating here took his mother’s handgun and killed her with it while she slept. He then stole her rifle, a Bushmaster XM15-E2S (the focus of this lawsuit), a second handgun, and proceeded to Sandy Hook Elementary School. There he murdered twenty first-grade children and six staff members. It was an act of unspeakable horror and evil.
The plaintiffs for this case allege that Remington bears some of the blame for this tragedy. They have stated that Remington’s marketing practices contributed in some way to this massacre. This is the single narrow theory that the court is allowing for the lawsuit. Remington has charged that a 2005 law known as PLCAA protects them from this lawsuit. In most of the charges, the court agreed with Remington. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) protects firearms manufacturers from liability for crimes committed with their weapons. In the document the court did not seem interested in challenging PLCAA.
That having been said, the court did allow for one of the plaintiffs arguments. That argument states 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”. Connecticut, like most states, has an Unfair Trade Practices Act (called CUPTA). As a result, the court has held that Remington’s actions may have constituted a violation of state law. Hence, the plaintiffs deserve their day in court.
This lawsuit is by no means new. The plaintiffs initially brought the case in 2014. In the trial court, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint due to lack of legal grounds. The plaintiffs have in turn argued that Remington acted negligently and the PLCAA does not protect them. Initially, the trial court rejected all of the plaintiff’s arguments. It held firstly that the plaintiffs’ allegations do not meet the definition of negligence. Secondly, if there is no negligence, then PLCAA shields Remington from the suit. Finally, the plaintiffs lack standing to bring a wrongful death suit, because they never entered into a business arrangement with Remington.
The plaintiffs challenged each of those three holdings on appeal. The Connecticut Supreme Court has initially held that there is standing for the lawsuit. If the plaintiffs can prove Remington violated CUPTA by marketing the XM15-E2S to civilians for criminal purposes, and if those wrongful marketing tactics contributed to the Sandy Hook massacre, then Remington is liable.
The Sky Is Not Falling
What has not happened is the dismantling of the PLCAA. Remington has not been found liable. There has not been an overwhelming victory for either side. Or rather, if there has been a victory, it is Remington’s. Remington has successfully argued that the only thing they might be liable for is unlawful marketing. The plaintiffs initially alleged that the AR-15 style of rifle is “a military grade weapon” that is “grossly ill-suited” to “legitimate civilian purposes.” The court struck down that argument.
Plaintiffs further argued that the defendants “unethically promoted their assault weapons for offensive, military-style missions.” This argument the court has entertained, but not decided on yet. Finally, the plaintiffs argued that this marketing was a “substantial factor in causing the plaintiffs’ injuries.” The court has allowed that if the plaintiffs can prove the former (unethical promotion), they may be able to convince a jury of the latter (substantial factor).
It is too early to say which side the court will eventually land on. However, the narrowness of the decision to even allow the case to proceed does not bode well for the plaintiffs. If they want to succeed in their suit, there is a long, arduous process ahead of them.