The arms industry suffered a stabbing setback when the Connecticut Supreme Court said that families of victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 filed their lawsuit against Remington Arms Co. were able to challenge the marketing of military-style Bushmaster weapons.
In a first-of-his-kind decision, the Supreme Court said the families could sue for "unlawful" marketing under an unfair commercial practice law. The court, which recaptured a trial by a judge in 2016, adopted the family's novel in a way around a federal law that protects the arms industry from liability.
Just by bringing the suit to court, the families hope to gain access to the internal communication of gun makers. This can help others pursue similar activities due to violence with weapons.
"This is a milestone and potentially historic statement," said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA Law School who specializes in constitutional law. "Although all this decision allows one issue to continue, in a broader sense, it opens up a new way to hold firearm producers responsible."
The company had argued that the law for the protection of legitimate trade relations, or PLCAA, fights court proceedings whereby arms companies are held responsible for crimes committed with their products. The statute, supported by the National Rifle Association, has helped the industry beat similar issues, with the Sandy Hook suit perhaps the most striking example.
The ruling brings "increased cause for concern among firearm manufacturers, who are thought to have been protected from such disputes since 2005," when Congress passed the PLCAA, said Rommel Dionisio, an analyst at Aegis Capital Corp. for the firearm industry.
The ruling could encourage similar species in other states, he added. "This may be a reason to propose such suits not only for cases of mass shootings, but also for individuals," he said.
Remington declined to comment. The company went bankrupt in May and has turned over $ 775 million in debt into equity. While owned by Cerberus Capital Management, the conglomerate of 13 brands accumulated nearly $ 1 billion in debt. Stakeholders in the company released feelers to potential strategic buyers last year, but it never sold.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group in the firearm industry that filed summary proceedings in support of the Remington Bushmaster unit, said it was disappointed.
"The majority decision today is at odds with all other state and federal appeals courts," the group said.
The split decision, with three of the seven justices in dissent, is not a definitive victory for the Sandy Hook families, as the case is now going back to the lower court for further proceedings and a potential lawsuit. It was not immediately clear whether Remington would ask the court to reconsider the US Supreme Court or to appeal.
But if the ruling survives a potential appeal, the families will certainly seek access to the secret business strategies and marketing plans of gun makers, Winkler said.
& # 39; Complete immunity & # 39;
"The Supreme Court of our state has rejected the arms industry's bid for complete immunity, not only because of the consequences of their reckless behavior, but also because of the process of discovering the truth," said lawyer Josh Koskoff, who represented the plaintiffs. "The family's goal has always been to shed light on Remington's calculated and profit-driven strategy of expanding the AR-15 market and bringing high-risk users to justice."
The families have waited for a verdict since a hearing in November 2017, where judges pounced on Remington's lawyers with questions about why ads for his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle invoke his ability to "single-handedly" overcome opposition forces.
In its decision of Thursday, the court said that the law on unfair commercial practices of any person who suffers a financial loss from such activities initiates a lawsuit – "whether or not they had a business relationship with the person or entity engaged in the prohibited practice "
& # 39; Perceived Enemies & # 39;
The suit claims the company has been marketed and has promoted the rifle that civilians can use to use & # 39; offensive military combat missions against their alleged enemies & # 39; and Connecticut's law is blocking advertisements that promote or encourage violent behavior, the court said in its 71-page verdict. Congress has not clearly demonstrated that it intended to stop Connecticut via the PLCAA to protect its citizens from "the pernicious practices" mentioned in the complaint, the court added.
"The regulation of advertising that threatens the health, safety and morality of the public has long been considered a core exercise of state police powers," Judge Richard Palmer wrote.
The families argued that an exception to the PLCAA applied to their case, but the lower court rejected that claim and the state supreme court agreed. But the ruling on unfair commercial practice claims to keep the matter moving.
Gun control groups were enthusiastic.
"Today's decision is a victory for the Sandy Hook families and a victory for the principle that no industry is above the law or above responsibility," said Adam Skaggs, chief lawyer at the Giffords Law Center.
Copyright 2019 Bloomberg.
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