By Joe Guffey on June 7, 2016

Gun controlOn the morning of December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School armed with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle modeled on the military M-16, which he used to kill 26 persons and wound others. The shootings received extensive nationwide media coverage.

In January, 2015 the personal representatives of several Sandy Hook victims filed a suit against Bushmaster and other defendants in Connecticut Superior Court[1]. In their 33 Count amended complaint the plaintiffs allege that the sale of military-style firearms such as the Bushmaster AR-15 poses “an unreasonable and egregious risk of physical injury,” including mass shootings such as Sandy Hook. The defendants moved to dismiss the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the ground, inter alia, that they were immune from the plaintiff’s claims by reason of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, 15 U.S.C. §7901 et seq. (“PLCAA”).  Plaintiffs also pleaded claims against the defendants for alleged violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (“CUTA”).

The defendants filed motions to dismiss relying on PLCAA language providing that a lawsuit “may not be brought” against firearm manufacturers unless certain exceptions apply. Defendants disputed plaintiffs’ contention that their claims came within the PLCAA’s statutory exception allowing suits based on negligent entrustment of a firearm, and also argued plaintiffs lacked standing to sue under the CUTA.

On April 14, 2016 the Court denied the defendants’ PLCAA motions. It said, “Although the phrase ‘may not be brought’ suggests absence of jurisdiction, the phrase is not equivalent to a clear statement of Congress’s intent to limit the power of the courts rather than the rights of litigants. . . . In the absence of such a clear statement, we must treat the PLCAA as speaking only to the rights and obligations of the litigants, not to the power of the court.’”[2]

The Court similarly rejected defendants’ arguments that the case did not fall within the PLCAA’s exception for negligent entrustment on the ground that they were “directed to the legal sufficiency of the complaint, and therefore would properly be the subject of a motion to strike, not a motion to dismiss,” and therefore did not consider the merits of plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment theory.[3] And the Court declined to reach defendants’ arguments that plaintiffs lacked standing to assert claims against them under the CUTA, holding that they too did not go to subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, it denied all the motions to dismiss.

The issues surrounding suits against firearms manufacturers and sellers by victims of the criminal acts of individuals who use firearms to kill and injure are fraught with political overtones and have figured prominently in the current Presidential campaign. Because the Sandy Hook PLCAA issues were first raised in jurisdictional motions, the Court did not reach the merits, and they remain for another day.

[1] Donna L. Soto, et al. v. Bushmaster Firearms International, et al., Docket No. FBT-CV-15-6048103-S, Superior Court, Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport.

[2] Memorandum of Decision, at 9.

[3] Memorandum of Decision, at 14.