Judge Denies Gun Manufacturer’s Motion To Dismiss Sandy Hook Suit, Ultimate Issue Still Remains

Given the attention it has been getting on the presidential campaign trail, we here at Abnormal Use recently discussed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”) and the issue of gun manufacturer liability. The PLCAA, signed into law back in 2005, affords gun manufacturers and sellers immunity in state and federal lawsuits except in situations where the seller knew the gun would be used in a crime, the gun buyer was obviously unfit to own a gun, the sale violated the law or the injury resulted from a manufacturing defect. The law has found itself in the crosshairs of certain presidential candidates in recent weeks on account of the press coverage surrounding a lawsuit filed against Remington by the families of Sandy Hook victims in which the plaintiffs seek to hold Remington liable for manufacturing and marketing the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle used by the shooter. The now politicized debate centers on the legitimacy of the PLCAA and whether a gun manufacturer should be held accountable to the families of the Sandy Hook victims.

Remiss in the political arena is the actual happenings in the Remington litigation. Back in December, the Remington defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the grounds that they are immune from suit by virtue of the protections afforded by the PLCAA. Last week, Judge Barbara Bellis issued an order denying the motion to dismiss. Before opponents of the PLCAA champion the order as a great victory or proponents chastise Judge Bellis for ignoring the law, a closer examination needs to be made into the basis of the decision.

Under Connecticut law, a motion to dismiss is an attack on the court’s jurisdiction. A motion to strike challenges the legal sufficiency of the complaint. The grounds for the defendants’ motion to dismiss focused solely on the argument that the PLCAA deprives the court of subject matter jurisdiction. When asked by Judge Bellis whether the motion should be treated as a motion to strike, the defendants reaffirmed their motion and stated that they were not challenging the legal sufficiency of the complaint. As such, the motion was treated as a motion to dismiss and the decision confined to whether the court had subject matter jurisdiction over the matter. The decision does not touch on the legal sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ claims.

Framing the issue in this manner, Judge Bellis found that the court has subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’ claims. In reaching her decision, Judge Bellis relied on a decision from the Second Circuit in New York v. Mickalis Pawn Shop, 645 F.3d 114 (2d Cir. 2011) which previously held that the “PLCAA’s bar on ‘qualified liability action[s]’ . . . does not deprive the court of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Moreover, Judge Bellis found it significant that other courts that have considered the PLCAA as a defense have done so in the context of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), which is the equivalent of a motion to strike under the laws of Connecticut rather than a motion to dismiss.  As such, Judge Bellis concluded that “any immunity that PLCAA may provide does not implicate the court’s subject matter jurisdiction,” and, thus, the motion to dismiss was denied.

We here at Abnormal Use won’t speculate as to whether the political debate over the PLCAA had any bearing on Judge Bellis’ decision. Right or wrong, the penultimate issue – whether Remington is afforded liability under the PLCAA – remains on the table. We assume that Remington is busy drafting that motion to strike as we speak.