Sandy Hook families make last-ditch plea to save gunmaker suit

  • Nicole Hockley, who lost her son, Dylan, in the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, waits in the gallery at the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to hear arguments in a lawsuit filed against Remington Arms, in Hartford, Conn. AP

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Family members of the children and adults killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre asked Connecticut’s highest court to revive their lawsuit against Remington Arms Co., the maker of the AR-15 assault weapon used in the attack.

When Adam Lanza prepared for his massacre on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, he put on tactical gear, taped 30-round magazines together and reached for a weapon that Remington should never had made available to him, plaintiffs attorney Josh Koskoff told the panel of judges Tuesday in Hartford.

“The weapon he needed for his mission was never in doubt,” he said of the AR-15. “Remington may never have known, but they had been courting him for years. The courtship between Remington and Adam Lanza is at the heart of this case.”

Lawyers for the family members asked the court to revive the suit that was dismissed last year by Judge Barbara Bellis in Bridgeport, Conn. She ruled that it was blocked by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, which bars gun companies from being held liable for crimes committed with their products.

The statute, backed by the National Rifle Association, has helped the industry defeat similar cases, with the Sandy Hook suit perhaps the highest-profile example. Opponents say easy access to guns is to blame for continued mass shootings in the U.S., including the Oct. 1 massacre of 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas and the slaughter just a month later of 26 people in a Texas church.

The Sandy Hook case hinges on an exception to the federal immunity law that applies when a seller “negligently entrusts” a weapon to a buyer who is likely to use it in a crime. But Remington argued the exception is intended to apply to face-to-face transactions involving retailers and individuals – not to manufacturers.

The families’ argument seeks a novel way around immunity in suits involving deadly shootings. Even by simply getting the suit to trial, they hope to gain access to gunmakers’ internal communications, which may aid others seeking to pursue similar suits growing out of gun violence.

The massacre at Sandy Hook was caused “solely by the criminal misuse of a weapon by Adam Lanza,” Bellis said in last year’s ruling. “This action falls squarely within the broad immunity provided by PLCAA.”

The families have argued Bushmaster Firearms International, maker of the rifle, and parent Remington should have known that mass shootings such as the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School might result from selling military-grade weapons with 30-round clips to civilians.

The group contends that the gunmaker’s disregard for what was likely to happen was equivalent to gun retailers selling weapons to customers who they knew were likely to commit a crime – a scenario that isn’t protected by a 2005 federal law shielding gun manufacturers.

“They marketed the weapon for exactly what it was,” Koskoff said in court on Tuesday, adding that Remington even used product placement to get its product in first-person-shooter video games played by Lanza.

The company has also argued that the question of whether the AR-15 should be sold to the public should be dealt with by legislators rather than juries.

Assault weapons were banned in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the law. A federal ban on such weapons was passed in 2004 and expired a decade later. Renewed efforts by mostly Democratic lawmakers to reinstate it have repeatedly failed.