Appeal Offers Hope for Newtown Families in Suit Against Gun Companies
By RICK ROJAS and KRISTIN HUSSEY
November 12, 2017
David and Francine Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son Benjamin was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the weapon used in the mass killing. CreditJessica Hill/Associated Press
NEWTOWN, Conn. – In the years since his 6-year-old son Benjamin was fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School, David Wheeler has testified before state legislatures, lobbied members of Congress and sat beside his wife, Francine, as she delivered a speech during one of President Obama’s weekly addresses, pleading for changes to the nation’s gun laws.
This week, the families of the victims plan to be in Hartford, listening as lawyers lay out in state Supreme Court their case that the companies that manufactured and sold the military-style assault rifle used by the gunman bear responsibility for the attack in which 26 people, including 20 children, were killed.
They are deploying a novel strategy that the families and their lawyers say could pierce the sweeping shield created by federal law that protects gun companies from litigation and has thwarted countless lawsuits after their weapons were used to commit crimes.
Supporters believe that if the court clears the way for a jury trial, the gun companies’ internal communications – which the companies have fought fiercely to keep private – would surface in discovery, a potentially revealing and damaging glimpse into the industry and how it operates. It could also chart a legal road map for the survivors and relatives of victims in other mass shootings as they pursue accountability.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all that these products are free of liability,” Mr. Wheeler said in a recent interview. “It’s not a level playing field. It’s not American capitalistic business practice as we know it. It’s just not right.”
The high stakes the case represents has drawn widespread interest and an intense response from both sides of the gun debate. The court has been inundated with amicus briefs – from gun control advocates and emergency room doctors who have treated patients wounded by assault rifle fire as well as from many gun-rights groups. In its brief, the National Rifle Association argued that allowing the case to move forward threatened to “eviscerate” the gun companies’ legal protections.
From left, Josh Koskoff, Alinor Sterling and Katie Mesner-Hage are the lawyers representing the families of those killed in Newtown in their lawsuit. CreditJessica Hill for The New York Times
The Supreme Court hearing, after years of back-and-forth in other courts, comes as the fifth anniversary of the Newtown massacre approaches next month, and falls in the shadow of recurring episodes of deadly mass violence that have reinvigorated the national debate over the sale of weapons like the AR-15 style Bushmaster rifle used in Newtown. A week ago, 26 people were fatally shot in a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., and a month earlier, a gunman sprayed gunfire over a crowd attending an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas, killing 59 people.
Some argue that the recent massacres, serving as a reminder of the toll weapons like the one used in Newtown can have, could lend credence to the lawsuit’s claims. “It’s like the world has thrown up Exhibit A for the plaintiffs’ argument,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a Georgetown University law professor and tort law expert who has followed the case.
But those opposing the Newtown families argue that the lawsuit is specifically the kind of legal challenge the federal protections were designed to block and that the litigation is simply an effort to use the courts as a forum to regulate gun laws.
The lawsuit, brought by the families of nine people who were killed and one teacher who was shot and survived, faces significant legal hurdles. It was elevated to the Connecticut Supreme Court after a lower court judge dismissed the lawsuit last year after she found that the claims it raised fell “squarely within the broad immunity” provided by federal law.
Mass shootings across the country have been followed by a flurry of legal action, but lawsuits brought against gun companies have failed after running headfirst into the high bar established by federal law.
In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which sharply restricted lawsuits against gun sellers and makers by granting industrywide immunity from blame when one of their products is used in a crime. Lawmakers behind the measure cited a need to foil what they described as predatory and politically driven litigation. But the law does allow exceptions for sale and marketing practices that violate state or federal laws and instances of so-called negligent entrustment, in which a gun is carelessly given or sold to a person posing a high risk of misusing it.
A Connecticut State Police photo of the AR-15 style Bushmaster rifle used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook massacre, in which 26 people were killed, including 20 children.CreditConnecticut State Police, via Getty Images
Legal experts said negligent entrustment has been cited with some success in lawsuits against gun dealers, but the Newtown families are for the first time broadening the scope to include a weapon’s manufacturer, in this case, Remington, which, along with a wholesaler and a local retailer, are all named in the suit. The companies’ lawyers declined to comment.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, a troubled 20-year-old, stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School armed with an AR-15 style Bushmaster rifle, firing 154 rounds in less than five minutes. The weapon had been legally purchased by his mother, Nancy Lanza, whom he also killed.
The lawsuit argues that because the AR-15 was designed for the United States military as a battlefield weapon to maximize fatalities, gun companies should never have entrusted the rifle to an untrained civilian public. The suit also claims that the companies deliberately promoted the weapon with product placement in video games and macho militaristic marketing slogans that appealed to a population of mentally unstable young men – the same population that has used the gun to kill innocent people in theaters, malls, schools and churches.
The families’ lawyers argue that the drumbeat of violence has only solidified their position. “That’s what happens when you market to a high-risk population,” said Joshua D. Koskoff, one of the lawyers representing the families.
The case has already advanced beyond what many had initially expected. The lawsuit was originally filed in state court in 2014, then it was moved to federal court, where a judge ordered that the case be returned to the state level. The families saw a glimmer of hope, and were even surprised, after the State Superior Court judge, Barbara N. Bellis, allowed the case to move closer to trial before dismissing it.
Lawyers for the families argue that, in a strictly legal sense, the outcome of the case would set little precedent outside of Connecticut. But a successful appeal could have symbolic influence, pointing out a weakness in the law that could represent a serious threat to gun companies, and as a result it has prompted a flood of legal fillings. “All the key players are getting in there,” Professor Feldman said.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Mr. Lanza, 20, stormed into the Sandy Hook Elementary School armed with the AR-15 style Bushmaster rifle and fired 154 rounds in less than five minutes. CreditJessica Hill/Associated Press
The state attorney general, gun violence prevention groups and a statewide association of school superintendents were among those writing in support of the families’ case, as well as a group of trauma surgeons and emergency room doctors who had treated patients after shootings in Newtown; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Aurora, Colo.
In one of the briefs backing the gun companies, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which happens to be headquartered in Newtown, acknowledged that the case centered on “a tragedy of unimaginable proportions,” but it also argued that the lawsuit sought to achieve “regulation through litigation.” The National Rifle Association said the “plaintiffs cannot shoehorn their claims” into the federal law’s narrow definition of negligent entrustment.
Yet another group, Gun Owners of America, offered a much more forceful response. The group, deploying a mix of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” references, challenged the way the lawsuit depicts the AR-15, saying, “the AR-15 rifle is not a Galactic Empire Death Star equipped with a Romulan Cloaking Device.”
“Plaintiffs’ brief illustrates the views of those who may never have even laid eyes on the weapons they vilify,” the group wrote, “much less squeezed off a few rounds at the range, like millions of peaceful, law-abiding Americans regularly do.”
In a case that has been drawn out over three years, the families involved are acutely aware of the consequences of what may be their last legal avenue. But Katie Mesner-Hage, a lawyer for the families, said they had taken a “long view,” realizing that they are “raising important, complicated issues – and important, complicated issues take time and there’s a longer trajectory to get to the end.”
Mr. Wheeler said that he has been frustrated by his lobbying efforts, testifying about his personal experience and pushing for reforms. But he and his wife never hesitated to join the lawsuit. “It wasn’t a difficult decision at all,” he said. “The landscape that is described in this suit is a grievous wrong.”
Mr. Koskoff added that, in many ways, his clients were more “battle-tested” than their lawyers.
“They have to face hostility and derision and threats sometimes, simply because they want to make something sensible out of the senselessness and the loss they feel,” Mr. Koskoff said. “And that’s a very cruel thing.”