The Supreme Court cleared the way on Tuesday for relatives of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims to sue the Remington Arms Company, the maker of the rifle used in the massacre.
The court said that it would not hear an appeal by Remington of a ruling by Connecticut’s Supreme Court that allowed a lawsuit brought by the families of the victims to go forward. The case has been seen as a test of the ability of plaintiffs to pierce the legal immunity of firearm manufacturers in the aftermath of shootings.
The case, Remington Arms v. Soto, was an outgrowth of a suit brought in Connecticut by relatives of those killed in the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 first graders and six educators. The Connecticut case is Soto v. Bushmaster.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case effectively confirmed that there is a path to challenging a federal law enacted in 2005 that shields gun makers, dealers and distributors from lawsuits after gun-related crimes.
The Sandy Hook families’ suit used one of six narrow exemptions to the 2005 law to argue that Remington violated Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. The suit said the gun maker recklessly marketed the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle to disturbed young men like the Sandy Hook gunman through product placement in violent video games and advertising pitches like “consider your man card reissued,” and “the opposition will bow down.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade association, released a statement saying it was “disappointed” in the decision.
“We are confident that Remington will prevail at trial,” the foundation said, adding that it believed there was no evidence that the gunman or his mother, who bought the weapon, “were influenced in any way by any advertisement.”
Remington said in legal filings that the Connecticut lawsuit was “widely recognized as a bellwether for the future of firearms litigation nationwide.” After the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a critical portion of the lawsuit could proceed, the company appealed to the United States Supreme Court, saying that the families’ case, if successful, would “eviscerate” the 2005 federal law.
More than two dozen cases challenging the federal shield law have been filed around the country. Few challenges to that law, called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, have progressed to trial. But dozens of states have consumer protection laws similar to the one in Connecticut, potentially opening a path for survivors of gun violence to sue the firearms industry, said Heidi Li Feldman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
The Connecticut suit “definitely shows the difficulty that the gun industry is having in choking off ordinary Americans’ recourse to hold them accountable in their own state courts,” Ms. Feldman said. “That’s a big thing.”
Tuesday’s decision allows the lawsuit to move forward in Connecticut. “Now we get to proceed with the case, which is what we were hoping to do almost five years ago,” Josh Koskoff, who represents the families in the lawsuit, said in an interview.
The case now moves closer to the discovery phase, a pretrial exchange of information between the parties. The Newtown families’ lawyers have asked for internal Remington documents, market research, emails and other communications related to the company’s marketing practices.
“We’ll want to ask questions to find out what was behind the decision-making for the marketing that was so aggressive and reckless,” Mr. Koskoff said.
Public sentiment toward other industries, including tobacco and pharmaceuticals, has shifted significantly after documents revealed during the discovery phase of legal cases showed that the companies misled the American public, said Alexandra D. Lahav, a University of Connecticut law professor who helped write a legal filing that supported the families’ lawsuit.
“Companies are very sophisticated today about their marketing — what kind of targeting are they doing and how do they understand it themselves?” Ms. Lahav said. “That information is going to have an effect on the public conversation here.”
The National Rifle Association, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, nine states and 22 members of the House were among the signatories of a half-dozen legal briefs supporting Remington’s appeal. The N.R.A. argued that the families’ challenge to the 2005 law could open the door to other lawsuits, potentially putting the firearm industry “out of business by unlimited and uncertain liability for criminal misuse of their products.”
Carlee Soto-Parisi, whose sister Vicki, a teacher, was killed at Sandy Hook, said the family was looking forward to learning more about the company through the discovery process.
“This is a victory for my family,” she said. “We’re all very excited that we’re able to go to court and that Remington will be held accountable.”
“We’re glad to see the case move forward,” Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse Lewis died at Sandy Hook, said in a statement. After the shooting, Ms. Lewis founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, which provides a social and emotional learning curriculum for schools. “It’s solely and strictly about the marketing of Remington products. Gun control is really not what the lawsuit is about. It’s about the marketing and advertising, accountability and responsibility.”
Remington representatives did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
The 2005 shield law was the culmination of an extended effort by the National Rifle Association. When the bill passed, the organization noted its seven-year campaign for the law, including “a comprehensive legislative and election strategy,” according to its chief lobbyist.
At the time, the firearms industry and President George W. Bush, who signed the law, said it was necessary to protect gun makers from “frivolous lawsuits” that could bankrupt the companies. Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, called the law “historic,” saying its passage by Congress was the industry’s most significant legislative victory in 20 years.
Jason Ouimet, the executive director of the N.R.A.’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement on Tuesday that deflecting “attention away from mental illness and criminals in order to blame inanimate objects won’t reduce violent crime or make anyone safer.”
Critics, including scores of law professors who signed a letter to Congress protesting the bill in 2005, have said the law extends protection to the firearms industry that few other industries enjoy.
“Sandy Hook families have successfully surmounted a sweetheart federal statute favoring gun companies,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, wrote on Twitter after the Supreme Court announced its decision on Tuesday.
He said he would continue to seek repeal of the law, saying it “has closed courthouse doors to countless other victims & families.”
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