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The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, 15 U.S.C.S. §§ 7901 through 7903, generally affords manufacturers and sellers of firearms immunity from civil liability arising from the criminal or unlawful use of their products by third parties. 15 U.S.C.S. §§ 7902(a) and 7903(5)(A). Congress carved out six exceptions to this immunity, pursuant to which firearms sellers may be held liable for third-party crimes committed with their products. § 7903(5)(A). The predicate exception permits civil actions alleging that a manufacturer or seller of a firearm knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the firearm, and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought. § 7903(5)(A)(iii). The statute applies to sales of both firearms and ammunition.
The plaintiffs, administrators of the estates of nine victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, brought an action in December, 2014, pursuant to the state's wrongful death statute, seeking damages, among other relief, from the defendants, the manufacturers, distributors and direct sellers of the semiautomatic rifle that the perpetrator, L, used to shoot the victims. The rifle was bought by L’s mother from the defendant direct sellers. According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, the defendants negligently entrusted to civilian consumers an assault rifle that was suitable only for use only by military and law enforcement personnel and violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) (§ 42-110a et seq.) through the sale or wrongful marketing of the rifle. The defendants moved to strike the complaint, contending that all of the plaintiffs' claims were barred by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) (15 U.S.C. §§ 7901 through 7903 ), which, subject to certain enumerated exceptions, immunized firearms manufacturers, distributors, and dealers from civil liability for crimes committed by third parties using their weapons. In granting the defendants' motions to strike the plaintiffs' complaint, the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs' allegations did not fit within the common-law tort of negligent entrustment, PLCAA barred the plaintiffs' claims insofar as those claims sounded in negligent entrustment, and the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring wrongful death claims predicated on CUTPA violations because they never entered into a business relationship with the defendants. Plaintiffs appealed.
Did the trial court err in striking the plaintiffs’ complaint?
Yes, with respect to plaintiffs’ wrongful marketing allegations.
The Court held that the plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment claim was properly stricken because there was no reason to expect that the perpetrator's mother who had purchased the rifle was likely to use it in an unsafe manner. However, the claims alleging that the advertising promoted or encouraged violent criminal behavior under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 42-110a et seq., stated viable claims that survived dismissal. Moreover, the Court held that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, 15 U.S.C.S. §§ 7901-7903, did not bar the claims based on wrongful marketing or advertising, as the allegations fell within "predicate" exception to immunity under 15 U.S.C.S. § 7903. Accordingly, the judgment is reversed insofar as the wrongful marketing allegations, and the matter was remanded for further proceedings.