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A Connecticut State Police Detective holds up a Bushmaster AR-15 at a legislative hearing in 2013.

Law

What the New Ruling In the Sandy Hook Lawsuit Actually Means

Victims’ families have claimed a “huge victory” in their fight to hold Bushmaster liable for the massacre. But legal experts say the ruling doesn’t address the case’s biggest hurdle.

A Connecticut judge ruled Thursday that a closely watched lawsuit filed by families of victims killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School against the manufacturer of the AR-15 rifle used in the 2012 massacre can proceed.

The victims’ legal team declared the decision, which overruled the defendant’s motion to dismiss, a “huge victory,” but experts say the ruling is relatively narrow, and does not address the biggest hurdle for the plaintiffs: surmounting a decade-old law that shields gun manufacturers from most liability claims.

Judge Barbara Bellis decided only that she has the authority to continue to hear the case — not whether the lawsuit is viable under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA).

“It kicked the can down the road a little bit,” Sachin Pandya, a University of Connecticut law professor, tells The Trace of the decision. The judge “has refused to really decide the other arguments that go to the legal merits.”

The case, Soto v. Bushmaster Firearms, was filed in 2014 in Connecticut state court by relatives of nine of the 26 children and adults that Adam Lanza killed at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 12, 2012. The plaintiffs argue that Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the AR-15 rifle Lanza used in his rampage, along with weapon’s distributor, are liable for the victims’ deaths because of how they market to civilians a military-grade gun “engineered to deliver maximum carnage with extreme efficiency.”

The plaintiffs, represented by the Bridgeport personal-injury law firm of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, argue that the sellers’ marketing of the AR-15 to the general public constitutes negligent entrustment, and that the same marketing tactics violate the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, which regulates deceptive advertising.

PLCAA makes exceptions for cases that allege negligent entrustment — when a gun seller carelessly puts a weapon into the wrong hands — or that allege a violation of laws regulating the sale or marketing of firearms.

But Bellis didn’t rule on whether the exceptions under PLCAA apply to the lawsuit. “At this juncture,” she wrote, “the court need not and will not consider the merits of the plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment theory.”

She said that the defense’s legal petition, rather than confronting the viability of the lawsuit under PLCAA, instead effectively challenged her authority to hear the dispute.

Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, says the ruling puts off a more significant showdown over how far the PLCAA exceptions will extend in a case like the Newtown lawsuit — the only current pending gun-marketing claim against the industry.

“We’re certainly pleased that the victims of Sandy Hook will continue to be able to argue their case,” Lowy says.

[Photo: AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File]