Remington Fights Sandy Hook Lawsuit, But Families Hope Trial May Reveal Gun Industry Practices

Jun 16, 2016

Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis speaks during final arguments in Bridgeport, Conn., on Monday.
Credit Ned Gerard / AP

  

Remington Arms is asking a Connecticut Superior Court yet again to stop a lawsuit against the company from going forward. The company is being sued for making the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, an assault weapon used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 

The company filed a motion to strike the case in April. Now, both sides will present oral arguments on Monday, June 20, over whether the case has merit.  This is the latest in a string of attempts from Remington to throw the case out before a trial or settlement. Remington and the other defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case, which failed in April, before they made the motion to strike.  

Bill Sherlach, a plaintiff in the case whose wife Mary was a counselor at the school where she was shot, says he's heartened by the case's success thus far: "We are hopeful we'll be able to continue our case."

 Sherlach’s lawsuit says that the semiautomatic used in the Sandy Hook shooting was a military style weapon that should never have been sold to civilians. "The damage that these weapons can do, that’s why the military uses them, right?" he says. "They want an end to whatever the threat is as quickly and efficiently as possible." 

In 2012 Adam Lanza took the semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle his mother had bought him, killed her with it and then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He shot 20 children and six teachers dead before taking his own life. Now, a trial date has been set and discovery begins for the lawsuit against Remington Arms for making the weapon used in the shooting.

In Bridgeport Superior Court on Tuesday, April 19, Judge Barbara Bellis declared that the discovery phase had begun for the civil lawsuit against the gun manufacturer, and she ordered the plaintiffs and defendants to agree to a trial date in April 2018.

Family members of victims in the shooting called the moment a small victory for a legal case that few people expected to even make it to court.

“I’m stunned and amazed — it was basically the best case scenario we could possibly hope for,” said Mark Barden, whose 6-year-old son Daniel died in the massacre, at the April hearing. “To be in a point where we are now, where the judge is actually considering letting the case go through…we didn’t even think it would get this far.”

Gun manufacturers and sellers are protected from most litigation under a controversial federal law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush in 2005.

There’s a loophole in the law for cases of negligent entrustment, or selling a gun to someone who you know, or reasonably should know, is likely to commit a crime. The attorney for the families has argued that the semiautomatic rifle Adam Lanza used in the shooting is a military weapon that should never have been sold or marketed to civilians. But even if that argument doesn’t work and plaintiffs don’t win at trial, some say the fact that the case has made it to discovery—the phase where plaintiffs can demand documents and private information about Remington’s business practices, in order to prepare for the trial—is a victory.

“It’s about changing the court of public opinion,” says Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA School of Law and specialist in American constitutional law. He points to the 1990s, when lawsuits against tobacco companies led to serious regulation of the industry.

“The tobacco industry was brought down because these internal documents were revealed to the public, and they cast the tobacco industry in a whole new light. The plaintiffs in the Sandy Hook lawsuit would like to do the same thing for the gun makers,” he says. “If they can get those documents through discovery, barring unusual circumstances, they will have the opportunity to reveal those documents to the public.”

Remington and the other defendants named in the shooting—Camfour, which distributed the gun, and Riverview Sales, which sold the gun—said they would try to get the case thrown out before trial by claiming that it doesn’t have merit. The defendants also said they would file a motion to stay discovery, asking the judge to prevent the plaintiffs from asking for evidence until she decides whether to throw out the case. It remains to be seen whether the judge will grant that motion. Lawyers for the defendants declined to comment in April, and a phone call to Remington Arms' press line found it had a full inbox and was not accepting messages.

For Sherlach, the progress on the lawsuit can’t erase the trauma of losing a loved one.

“This is not something I relive because I come back here—it’s something I relive every day. It’s something my kids relive every day,” he said in court in April. “I mean my daughter’s going to give me my first granddaughter in a week and a half, and Mary won’t be here for that.”