Why Sandy Hook families' suit against a gunmaker was dismissed

A judge on Connecticut’s State Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit brought against the manufacturer of an assault rifle used to kill 26 people at an elementary school in 2012.

Ned Gerard/Reuters/File
Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis during a June 20 hearing in a wrongful death lawsuit against rifle maker Remington Arms brought by families of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A Connecticut judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by families of those killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting against the manufacturers of the assault weapon used in the attack, citing a federal law that protects such companies when their weapons are used in violent crimes.

Judge Barbara Bellis of the State Superior Court made the call Friday, some six months after ruling that the suit could move forward despite its clash with Protection of the Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law that created broad protections for firearm manufacturers. Families of the slain students and staff, as well as proponents of gun reform, had hoped the suit could prove that Remington Arms, the maker of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, acted negligently by selling the weapon to civilians who lack proper training to use the rifle safely.

“This action falls squarely within the broad immunity provided” by the act, Judge Bellis wrote, according to The New York Times.

The families’ attorneys had argued for an exemption to the act involving “negligent entrustment,” claiming that Remington Arms marketed and sold the assault rifle to civilians even though the company knew it posed a safety risk outside of “highly regulated institutions” like the military or law enforcement departments.

Adam Lanza used the weapon to kill 20 children and six adults at the school in December of 2012. Nine family members of the deceased and one teacher who survived the massacre were represented in the suit, which was filed against Remington Arms, a wholesaler, and a local retailer in 2014.

In April, Bellis ruled that the law "does not prevent lawyers for the families of Sandy Hook victims from arguing that the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle is a military weapon and should not have been sold to civilians," surprising some on both sides of the case when she allowed the suit to move forward.

But on Friday, Bellis ruled that the claims against Remington were too broad, noting that Congress previously deemed the weapon lawfull for civilians to possess. 

“To extend the theory of negligent entrustment to the class of nonmilitary, nonpolice civilians – the general public – would imply that the general public lacks the ordinary prudence necessary to handle an object that Congress regards as appropriate for sale to the general public,” she wrote. “This the court is unwilling to do.”

Joshua Koskoff, a lawyer for the families, said they plan to appeal the decision immediately.

"While the families are obviously disappointed with the judge's decision, this is not the end of the fight,” he said. “We will appeal this decision immediately and continue our work to help prevent the next Sandy Hook from happening.”

Some plaintiffs, including Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, was killed while working at the school, hoped the suit could shine a light on the marketing practices gun companies use to sell assault rifles.

“Trust me when I tell you that nobody wants to go through what we’ve all been through,” he told the Times.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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