Last Thursday, the Connecticut Supreme Court struck a blow to the firearm industry and established a new legal precedent that allows the victims and relatives of gun violence to sue gun manufacturers and distributors.
In a 4-3 decision, the state’s highest court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit against Bushmaster Firearms International and ruled that the plaintiffs have standing to sue Bushmaster with their wrongful death lawsuit. The Court remanded the case to give the plaintiffs a chance to prove that Bushmaster violated a state law over marketing concerns.
Five years ago, several families of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting sued Bushmaster Firearms International, seeking damages and other relief from the company. In December 2012, the perpetrator of the shooting used an AR-15, produced and sold by Bushmaster, to kill 27 innocent people. The lawsuit centers on the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a federal law that protects firearm manufacturers and dealers from being held liable when people commit crimes with their products, and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA). The lawsuit focuses on two main legal theories.
The first legal theory claims that Bushmaster violated the CUTPA by selling military-grade rifles to untrained consumers despite knowledge of their danger and power, which would be considered a negligent and unfair trade practice. The second legal theory claims that Bushmaster marketed their Bushmaster rifle in an unethical and immoral way that promotes its usage in combat situations, like the Sandy Hook shooting. Connecticut state law prohibits advertisements that promote lawlessness and violence, as reaffirmed by the Court’s majority.
Although the plaintiffs sued on the theory of CUTPA violations, the PLCAA is still directly related to the lawsuit. Bushmaster argued that, under the CUTPA, they cannot be held responsible for the Sandy Hook massacre because the law protects them as the manufacturer and distributor of the AR-15 rifle. While the court upheld most of their arguments, they ruled that Congress never intended for the PLCAA to preclude state law, so it does not apply in this case. The Court gave the plaintiffs a chance to prove that Bushmaster’s marketing of the AR-15 violates Connecticut’s state laws in a lower court, but did not explicitly rule on behalf of one party.
This ruling sets a dangerous legal precedent. It is absurd that a company that markets a firearm in a specific way is legally responsible for violence carried out by perpetrators using their products.
Marketing can be provocative, and often is, but companies cannot control a consumer’s actions. If a consumer already has violent prenotions, purchases an ‘unethically’ marketed firearm, and carries out violence with the firearm, the fault lies within the individual’s psychology more than the company’s marketing. In the case of Sandy Hook, the gunman used his mother’s AR-15 during the shooting, so he wasn’t even the consumer.
This precedent may also apply to other industries. Does a person have standing to sue Toyota if they recklessly endanger themselves and others and vehicular manslaughter? Can someone sue McDonald’s for health-related damages because of their negligent sales? Can a relative of someone killed in a knife attack sue the manufacturer of the knife? This precedent takes the responsibility off of the individual and onto the producer, which goes against basic logic and principle.
While the established principle is dangerous, the other parts of the ruling are not as bad. By limiting the scope of the PLCAA, the ruling reaffirms the states’ police powers under the 10th Amendment. The PLCAA has clear exceptions, and the 109th Congress intended for states to keep their authority to legislate on matters like marketing and advertising, as Connecticut did with CUTPA. It’s good that the Court applied the principle of dividing powers between the federal government and the state governments. In addition, the case has not been decided yet, and the plaintiffs still need to prove that Bushmaster violated Connecticut’s state laws.
Ideally, Bushmaster will appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court where they would interpret the conflict between federal and state law. However, it is extremely rare for the Supreme Court to take up a case from a state court, and this case does not present a direct federal question, so it appears that the fate of the gun industry’s protections from civil liability lies in the hands of the lower court.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.