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Judge Barbara Bellis is presiding over the case brought by Newtown families.

Law

Gun Companies in Sandy Hook Suit Refuse to Turn Over Documents

The legal move is their latest effort to avoid revealing industry secrets.

Earlier this month, a Connecticut judge ruled that the discovery process must proceed in the civil suit filed by families of Sandy Hook victims against the gun companies that manufactured and sold one of the guns Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six adults. The plaintiffs declared the decision a victory.  

The families brought their lawsuit in December 2014. For the nearly year and a half since then, they had waited “as the defendants tried every tactic to avoid having to disclose a single document or answer a single question under oath,” said Joshua Koskoff, a lawyer for the families, after the ruling. “Now that wait is officially over.”

Not quite. Nearly two weeks after Judge Barbara Bellis’s ruling, attorneys for the defendants are aggressively opposing document requests in an effort to put off complying with discovery until they complete a second effort to get the case dismissed.

The Sandy Hook families suing Remington (along with Camfour, a firearms distributor that served the Connecticut gun retailer where Adam Lanza’s mother bought the rifle) want the gunmaker to release information that addresses their claim that the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15 Lanza used in the December 2012 shooting negligently marketed the gun as a killing machine. Specifically, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have requested information on how Remington uses video game marketing and web ads to promote their weapons as useful for home defense.

But Remington and Camfour have yet to turn over the 22 documents requested by the Sandy Hook families, offering a litany of reasons for their inaction in a series of motions. The companies have also asked the court for a protective order that would bar the media and the general public from seeing any documents they eventually hand over. The rare concessions made by the lawyers for Remington and Camfour have been limited to agreeing to offer up material already publicly available, such as owner manuals for the AR-15 rifle.

If the defendants continue to dodge the discovery requests and ultimately win a dismissal of the case, the effort may ensure the materials — which could shed light on gun industry practices for marketing high-power weapons to civilians — never see the light of day.

“The defendants are basically making an effort to try to slow the process down so that they can have a motion to strike decided,” said Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State whose book, Suing the Gun Industry: A Battle at the Crossroads of Gun Control and Mass Torts, chronicles efforts to sue gun makers. “They don’t want the plaintiffs rifling through their files and exposing them to press coverage.”

Lytton notes that Bellis made a relatively unusual decision in allowing discovery to proceed before ruling on the motion to strike the case. He said the gun companies’ tactic suggests their lawyers are confident they will ultimately get the case tossed out.

In their filings, attorneys for Remington and Camfour took the occasion to engage in some combative lexicography, raising complaints about the vagueness of the term “assault weapon,” a line of attack that has featured prominently in debates over regulation of such weapons.

“There is no such thing as a semi-automatic ‘assault’ rifle because true ‘assault’ rifles are selective fire firearms that can be fired in a fully-automatic mode,” lawyers for Remington wrote in one motion.

Lytton suspects the extra sparring may results from the charged nature of the case.

“Emotions — not only among the parties but among the attorneys — have been running very high,” he said.

[Photo: Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP]