In an important, but underreported, legal decision, a Milwaukee jury recently awarded more than $5 million to two police officers who were severely wounded with a pistol that a local gun shop sold to a straw buyer in 2009.
The case has been closely watched by all parties with a stake in the gun debate – gun control advocates, the firearms industry and legal scholars – because the suit was a rare test for a jury to decide the responsibility of gun sellers for the criminal use of their products.
This was only the second time in the last ten years that a civil lawsuit alleging negligence against a gun shop reached a jury. Significantly, it is the first time a jury sided with the injured party (the other gun case was in Alaska but the jury found for the gun shop.) Most cases against gun makers and sellers never get to see the light of day as they are dismissed (thrown out of court) due to both state and federal laws prohibiting such suits.
Victims and municipalities have tried suing the gun industry for years but, in more than 30 states, specific laws have been passed barring most lawsuits against gun makers and sellers for the way their products are used by buyers.
In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which basically shields the gun industry from liability. But the law provides a limited exception: Victims wounded with a weapon can pursue civil damages if the seller of a firearm knew, or should have known, that the transaction was illegal, or that it would very likely pose a danger.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers were able to prove their lawsuit fell under the federal exception, thus avoiding the defendant’s motion to dismiss.
Specifically, the lawyers were able to show the gun shop in question failed to pick up on the many red flags that should have aroused suspicion on the day of the gun purchase. The jury determined that it was obvious the ostensible purchaser was fronting for an 18-year-old (too young to legally purchase the gun himself) who accompanied him to the store. One month after the sham purchase, the 18-year-old shot the two officers leaving them with serious injuries.
Just as with lawsuits against the tobacco industry and drug companies, leave it to the trial lawyers to do what legislators refuse to do… protect the general public from dangerous products. It is only when makers and sellers of deadly products fear the threat of big jury awards that they, through sheer self interest, voluntarily change their ways.
Whether this case “opens the floodgates” for other gun injury lawsuits remains to be seen. An appeal is sure to follow. But if one knows trial lawyers, the smell of large fees is too intoxicating not to start hammering away with a more suits. Now that the dam has sprung a leak, watch out!
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