The conventional wisdom is that gun manufactures, sellers, and dealers are immune to liability for the injuries and deaths caused by their products. But recent trends in firearms litigation suggest that there are still viable ways to bring gun lawsuits that can compensate victims of gun violence.
Ask someone if the makers of firearms should be held liable for damages caused by guns you might hear, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” In keeping with sentiment, a 2005 piece of federal legislation, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was passed. The legislation, which shielded licensed firearms manufacturers, sellers, and dealers from civil actions resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm ammunition, made it much more difficult for victims of gun violence or gun defects to recover for injuries caused by guns. But that law contains important exceptions, and over the past decade, attorneys and gun-regulation advocates have found ways to hold gun stores and gun manufacturers responsible for the injuries they have caused.
“We may be at the threshold of something. When you get a blip like this, it may signal that there is a target of opportunity.”
Products liability actions have led the way for holding the gun industry accountable for unreasonably dangerous products. One stunning example of products liability litigation centering around firearms is the Remington 700. As early as 1994, Remington was aware that the trigger on the Remington 700 was defective. The gun had been firing without anyone touching the trigger (the Walker model) for decades, injuring thousands of people. In 2006, after receiving over 200 complaints about the defective trigger system, Remington replaced the Walker model trigger with the X-Mark Pro. But the problem persisted and more people were injured and killed. Finally, after numerous complaints and over 150 lawsuits, Remington issued a recall of the 700 but insisted that no one had been harmed by the defect. Consumers have responded with products liability actions asserting that the gun, with the defective trigger, is unreasonably dangerous. Recently, a class action suit settled for $12.5 million. Remington has continued this pattern and settled almost all the litigation stemming from the defective trigger for fear that they will have to recall and replace or repair the approximately 7.5 million defective guns currently in existence.
Another avenue for recovery against firearms dealers is the pursuit of a negligence claim such as a gun-store lawsuit. To succeed with such a claim, a plaintiff will have to prove that the seller knew or should have known that the person buying the firearm was dangerous or ineligible to own a gun. In 2012, Odessa Gun & Pawn Shop settled a negligence claim for $2.2 million after they sold Colby Sue Weathers the gun she used to murder her father. Weathers was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic whose mother had called the shop pleading with them not to sell her daughter a gun. Weathers had used the first gun she bought from Odessa Gun & Pawn Shop to attempt suicide. Despite the warnings by Janet Delana, Weather’s mother, Weathers was allowed to purchase the second gun. After the murder of her husband, Janet Delana sued the pawn shop for negligence. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that nothing in federal law (including the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act) barred this type of claim. Similar claims are pending in Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Texas.
Negligence claims have been particularly effective against dealers who knowingly sell to a “straw buyer.” A straw buyer is known in the firearms industry as an individual who can legally own a firearm but illegally buys a gun for someone ineligible to own one (such as a convicted felon). In 2015, a gun dealership known as “Badger Guns” was held liable to two Wisconsin police officers who had been injured by guns bought illegally at Badger’s. The officers were awarded $6 million after a jury found that Badger’s had negligently sold numerous guns to ineligible customers. Regarding negligence suits, Marshall S. Shapo, a Northwestern University law professor and expert on products liability has said, “We may be at the threshold of something. When you get a blip like this, it may signal that there is a target of opportunity.”
Developments in the law of gun-store lawsuits and other firearms litigation are giving victims of gun violence and owners of defective firearms more and more opportunities for legal recovery.