In an important court ruling, the Connecticut Supreme Court has revived a wrongful death lawsuit against Remington Arms, manufacturer of the rifle used to commit the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Overturning the opinion of a lower court judge, the court has ruled that, despite far-reaching protections under federal law, Remington can be sued over its marketing practices under a Connecticut state consumer protection law.
The decision marks a turning point in the contentious fight over access to internal Remington documents describing how and why the Bushmaster AR-15 used in the shooting was marketed. In court documents, families of the victims say Remington intentionally marketed the military-style weapon to at-risk young males with a “preoccupation with violence.”
The lawsuit, filed by the families of nine victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, accuses Remington of improperly marketing a military-style firearm to civilians. Originally filed in 2014, the case names multiple defendants, including gun manufacturers Bushmaster and Remington, distributor Camfour Holdings, and gun shop Riverview Gun Sales Inc., the store where the Sandy Hook shooter purchased his AR-15.
But the case was dismissed in 2016 by a judge for the Connecticut Superior Court, who agreed with Remington that the families’ lawsuit comes under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law that protects gun manufacturers and retailers from civil liability in lawsuits filed by victims and survivors of gun-related violence. In general, gun manufacturers cannot be held liable for the wrongful actions taken with the weapons they produce.
Now, Connecticut’s State Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue. In a 4-3 majority decision, jurors reinstated the case against Remington, arguing that Congress did not intend for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) to preclude the provisions of state law. So, while Remington may be protected from liability under the PLCAA, the company isn’t necessarily free from all liability. A state law, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, may apply in this case, the court said, and the families should have the opportunity to prove it.
As the Connecticut Supreme Court notes, Connecticut state law “does not permit advertisements that promote or encourage violent, criminal behavior.” Despite strong federal protections for gun manufacturers and retailers, “Congress did not intend to immunize firearms suppliers who engage in truly unethical and irresponsible marketing practices promoting criminal conduct, and given that statutes such as [the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act] are the only means available to address those types of wrongs, it falls to a jury to decide whether the promotional schemes alleged in the present case rise to the level of illegal trade practices and whether fault for the tragedy can be laid at their feet.”
The state Supreme Court decision lays a foundation for the case against Remington to continue. From here, it will return to the lower court from which it was dismissed for further proceedings. Importantly, plaintiffs’ attorneys will now gain the opportunity to access internal corporate documents from the gun manufacturers. Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal has compared the decision to early court successes against the tobacco industry, which led to the disclosure of damning internal documents.
“What I’m looking to find out in this whole process, essentially, is what went on inside Remington,” says Bill Sherlach, whose wife Mary was murdered in the Sandy Hook shooting. “Let’s see the internal documents, the internal emails, as to what the charges were to their marketing and ad execs.”
In their lawsuits, families claim that Remington improperly marketed the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same weapon used by Adam Lanza to carry out the 2012 Newtown shooting. 20 first-graders and six school teachers died in the shooting. The families accuse Remington of marketing the military-style firearm to young, at-risk males by using “militaristic marketing and astute product placement in violent first-person shooter games,” the Hartford Courant reports. 20-year-old Adam Lanza played violent video games.
In court documents, attorneys for Remington argued that there being no way for the company to assess the shooter’s fitness to purchase a weapon, there could be no way for the gun manufacturer to know what the firearm would be used for, and thus, no liability could attach. In the wake of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s recent decision, Remington has appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. In doing so, Remington hopes that the Supreme Court will overrule the Connecticut court’s interpretation of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.