Fate of Sandy Hook lawsuit against gun maker could be decided by a slingshot
A Connecticut State Police officer holds a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of the gun used by Adam Lanza, during a hearing reviewing gun laws in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2013.Jessica Hill / AP file
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Connecticut's highest court heard arguments Tuesday over whether the families of victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre can revive their lawsuit against the company that made the rifle that Adam Lanza used to kill 20 schoolchildren and six adults in 2012.
A state Superior Court judge last year dismissed the suit, which was brought by relatives of nine people who were killed and one person who survived the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012. The judge cited a federal law that broadly prohibits lawsuits against gun makers and dealers when a weapon functions "as designed and intended."
Attorneys for the families argued in court documents and in the Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford on Tuesday that an exception to the 2005 law allows lawsuits against companies that know or should reasonably be expected to know that their products are likely to be used "in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to the person or others."
It's a claim called "negligent entrustment," and it has often been argued in cases involving unlicensed or reckless drivers who cause injuries when they're driving someone else's vehicle.
"Remington may never have known Adam Lanza, but they had been courting him for years."
Josh Koskoff, an attorney for the Sandy Hook families, and other legal experts said the Remington suit is believed to be the first to have been filed under the gun law exception.
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Like David in the Bible, the plaintiffs are trying to bring down a giant with a slingshot.
The Sandy Hook suit cites a 1977 case, Moning v. Alfono, in which the Michigan Supreme Court allowed a lawsuit to proceed against the company that made high-speed slingshots. An 11-year-old boy used one of the company's slingshots to fire a pellet that ricocheted off a tree and struck his 12-year-old friend in the eye.
The court found that even though the manufacturer had no knowledge of or connection to the boy who fired the pellet, it marketed its slingshot to young children and should have foreseen that young children could be use it to fire pellets in a dangerous manner.
That was important enough, the court said, that a trial was appropriate to weigh whether the manufacturer was at fault for the 12-year-old boy's injury.
Likewise, Koskoff told the Connecticut court on Tuesday, Remington marketed its Bushmaster XM15-E2S directly at people like Adam Lanza — people whom the lawsuit describes as young men "obsessed with the military," specifically elite units like the Army Rangers, and "uninterested in hunting or target shooting" (italics in original).
"Now, Remington may never have known Adam Lanza, but they had been courting him for years," Vogts told the justices on Tuesday. "And the courtship between Remington and Adam Lanza is at the heart if this case."
But James Vogts, an attorney for Remington, argued that the 2005 law is clear: Manufacturers and sellers aren't liable when their weapons work the way they're designed to work.
"No matter how tragic, no matter how much we wish those children and their teachers were not lost and their families had not suffered, the law needs to be applied," Vogts told the court. "Under the law — federal law and Connecticut law — the manufacturers and sellers are not responsible for the crimes and the harm they cause."
After the hearing, Ian Hockley — whose son Dylan was killed — told reporters: "We, the plaintiff families of the victims of the Sandy Hook School massacre, have infinite patience to see justice done and utmost faith in the legal system to serve the people it is meant to protect. We have not lost one ounce of confidence in the justness of our case."
The suit seeks unspecified damages.
Alex Johnson is a reporter and editor for NBC News based in Los Angeles.