The Connecticut Supreme Court has revived a high-profile Sandy Hook lawsuit against a major gun manufacturer. Multiple plaintiffs brought the suit against Remington for its role in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
Gun Industry Largely Shielded from Lawsuits
On March 14, 2019, by a 4–3 vote, the Connecticut Supreme Court revived Soto v. Remington, a lawsuit by a survivor and the families of victims of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. The Sandy Hook lawsuit alleges that Remington recklessly marketed its Bushmaster AR-15-style weapon for “illegal, offensive purposes.” As a result, the suit argues the gun manufacturer may have contributed to Adam Lanza’s murder of 26 people at the elementary school.
The Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling about the Sandy Hook lawsuit draws upon two laws: the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) and the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The CUTPA is a state regulation that prohibits “wrongful advertising” – marketing a product in an unfair, unethical, or dangerous manner. The PLCAA is a federal statute that limits Americans’ ability to sue gun manufacturers and sellers.
Passed in 2005 to shield the gun industry from the kind of lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in the 1990s, the PLCAA makes the industry largely immune in personal injury cases where its products are used illegally. The PLCAA prevents families of shooting victims from suing gun shops and manufacturers for making or selling assault weapons.
Gun Manufacturer Potentially Liable for “Wrongful Advertising”
But the PLCAA also includes an exception that allows claims alleging that a gun manufacturer or seller “knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the [firearm], and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought.”
Soto v. Remington argues that Remington’s advertisements for the Bushmaster violated the CUTPA by promoting unethical and illegal use of the weapon. The Sandy Hook lawsuit cited multiple ads that depicted the gun not as a tool for home defense, sports, or hunting, but as a weapon of war meant to kill a large number of people in a small amount of time.
In its marketing campaign, Remington advertised the gun as “the ultimate combat weapons system” used by the armed forces in war. The ads depicted a close-up of the gun with the slogan “Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered.” Remington also promoted the weapon as an “uncompromising choice” with “military proven performance.”
Drawing upon these examples, the attorney for the Sandy Hook lawsuit plaintiffs alleged that Remington advertised its product for “illegal, offensive purposes” in violation of the CUTPA. “Remington may never have known Adam Lanza,” the attorney said at oral arguments, “but they had been courting him for years.”
Based on these arguments, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that Remington’s ads promoted the Bushmaster as a tool to “enable a shooter to inflict unparalleled carnage” in violation of the CUTPA, thus making the state law applicable as a basis for civil litigation.
The court also noted that the “wrongful advertising” may have been “a causal factor in increasing the casualties of the Sandy Hook massacre.” The majority opinion cited the plaintiffs’ argument that Remington sought to “expand the market for [its] assault weapons through advertising campaigns that encouraged consumer…to launch offensive assaults against their perceived enemies.” For this reason, PLCAA does not prevent these plaintiffs from asking a jury to hold Remington “accountable for the injuries wrought by such unscrupulous marketing practices.”
Sandy Hook Lawsuit May Be Blow to Gun Industry
Soto v. Remington was originally filed in 2014 on behalf of the families of nine Sandy Hook victims and a teacher who was injured in the shooting. The Sandy Hook lawsuit named gun manufacturers and distributors Bushmaster, Remington, Camfour Holdings LLP, Riverview Gun Sales Inc. (the gun shop where Lanza’s mother had purchased the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle), and the store’s owner.
The Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision overturned the ruling of a Connecticut Superior Court judge, who had dismissed the lawsuit in 2016. In that dismissal, the judge agreed with Remington’s attorneys that the case fell within the “broad immunity” gun manufacturers and sellers are granted under the PLCAA. The new ruling sends the Sandy Hook lawsuit back down to the lower court, where the case can continue against Remington for “wrongful advertising” in violation of the CUTPA.
Observers note that the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling may represent a significant blow to the firearms industry, which has long able to claim near-total immunity from such lawsuits. Perhaps most troubling to the industry is the idea that the Sandy Hook lawsuit and similar cases will allow lawyers to access internal documents from the defendants through the discovery process.
These documents could potentially include damning communications revealing the gun industry’s strategies for marketing lethal products to the public – the types of communications that proved so costly to the tobacco industry when it faced extensive litigation in the 1990s.