WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection Tuesday of an appeal from Remington Arms to overturn a groundbreaking ruling that could pierce the federal law preventing most lawsuits against gun manufacturers paves the way for a survivor and relatives of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to pursue their lawsuit in state court.
Remington’s attorneys had filed a writ of certiorari following a ruling in March by the Connecticut Supreme Court that overturned a dismissal of the lawsuit by a state judge and remanded the case back to Superior Court in Bridgeport.
“The families are grateful that the Supreme Court upheld precedent and denied Remington’s latest attempt to avoid accountability,” Josh Koskoff, a lawyer for the families, said Tuesday. “We are ready to resume discovery and proceed towards trial in order to shed light on Remington’s profit-driven strategy to expand the AR-15 market and court high-risk users at the expense of Americans’ safety.”
The state Supreme Court had ruled last March that the Sandy Hook families should have the opportunity to prove that Remington violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) by marketing what it knew was a weapon designed for military use to civilians such as Nancy and Adam Lanza.
Adam Lanza used an AR-15 that belonged to his mother to kill 26 people, including 20 first-graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. A school administrator who was shot exiting a conference room and nine families of victims of the massacre filed a lawsuit against Remington, the manufacturer of the AR-15, in 2015.
A year later Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis dismissed the lawsuit, agreeing with attorneys for Remington that the lawsuit “falls squarely within the broad immunity” provided to gun manufacturers and dealers by the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, known as PLCAA. The lawsuit also named Camfour Holding LLP, the gun’s distributor, and Riverview Gun Sales Inc., the East Windsor gun shop where Nancy Lanza purchased the AR-15 right around her son’s 18th birthday.
The families appealed Bellis’ ruling to the state Supreme Court which ruled by a 4-3 margin to remand the case back to state court and allow it to continue.
The case has been on hold while the parties waited first for the state’s highest court and then the nation’s highest court to rule on appeals. Judicial officials had transferred the case in August from Bridgeport to Waterbury Superior Court where complex litigation cases are adjudicated and where Bellis is now sitting.
Heidi Feldman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, said it wasn’t surprising that the justices didn’t take the case because the court very rarely gets involved in cases in the middle of them rather than when they are resolved.
She said Remington took a chance trying to get the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and now will have to go forward with a case they really want no part of.
“It’s really bad news for Remington because now they will have to go through the discovery process,” Feldman said. “The families are much closer to their goal of making the reveal their marketing practices.”
Koskoff said in an interview Tuesday that lawyers hope to get the case back on track quickly. They had just started discovery when the case was dismissed and already Remington’s attorneys were fighting about what documents would be turned over and what should be kept confidential.
“As we were getting our toes in the water with discovery everything stopped,” he said. “We are at the very dawn of discovery for this case.”
Koskoff anticipates Remington trying to keep internal documents sealed from public view — something that the families will want to fight.
“The M.O. of any big industry is to reveal as little as possible,” he said. “But in many ways the goal of this lawsuit is to shed light on those documents so the families can see how the gun used in this shooting was marketed so we will do everything we can to insure that this is a transparent process.”
In a joint statement, three members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation said the Supreme Court’s rejection of Remington’s appeal “is another crack in the legal armor of the gun industry.”
“This critical victory reinforces the need for Congress to pass legislation repealing the gun industry’s sweetheart immunity deal and unlocking the doors to justice for all victims of gun violence,” said Rep. Jahana Hays, D-5th District, and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.
Gov. Ned Lamont said the decision meant the Sandy Hook families would get their day in court to “make their voices heard and … ensure that no other family has to endure the grief they have faced.”
“The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is not an impenetrable shield against all responsibility, and gun manufacturers must be held accountable just like any other manufacturer of a consumer product for actions that violate Connecticut law and harm the public,” said Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who filed an amicus brief with the state Supreme Court in support of the Sandy Hook families.
Timothy Lytton, an associate dean at the Georgia State College of Law, said he believed the court would hear Remington’s appeal because there is a federal statute in place and there is a state interpretation of it now that contradicts what other states have decided.
“I would have thought they would have wanted to weigh in at this stage of litigation to clarify this issue,” Lytton said. “The federal law is designed to give immunity to these manufacturers and to save the industry the money from defending these lawsuits.”
Koskoff acknowledged that the state Supreme Court ruling leaves them a narrow way to go forward with the lawsuit.
Feldman said Koskoff will have to show not only that Remington intentionally violated the state’s consumer protection laws but also that the advertising of the weapon was as much a cause of this shooting as the shooter’s own actions.
But Lytton said the families have gotten a lot further than many people ever thought they would.