In December of 2012 a truly horrific and evil event took place in Newtown, Connecticut. A mentally ill and disturbed individual killed his mother and took her legally purchased Remington Bushmaster AR-15. He then proceeded to travel to the Sandy Hook elementary school where he went on a rampage killing many, including children. This was one of the darkest days in American history. I’m here to say that those responsible for this horrific event should be held accountable. However, I’m also here to say that the list of those responsible for this event does not include the manufacturer of this improperly used tool; Remington Arms Company. However, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, this last position is going to be debated in court. This is very very wrong for a number of reasons.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that a suit seeking to hold the Remington Arms Company liable for the damage caused to the victims and their families could proceed to trial. It is important to note that the plaintiffs in this case are pursing damages not strictly along lines of product liability but under one specific component of a 2005 Massachusetts law regarding the sale of firearms. This detail aside, I’m writing this piece as a foreshadowing of what a successful suit here may lead to. If this suit is successful, the ramifications could ripple through tort law with massive implications. The purpose of this post is not to debate gun control or some other ideological point. This post is purely about how wrong this decision is legally and the damage that could be caused were this suit to be successful.
Under the argument made by the plaintiff in this case, a manufacturer of a firearm such as Remington Arms Co. could be held legally liable for damages caused if an individual uses one of their firearms to illegally harm or kill someone given the way in which the firearm is advertised and sold. Specifically, when the item is pitched to potential consumers in such a way as to reasonable lead to violent acts, such as the Sandy Hook shooting.
Without getting too deep into the legal weeds, the manufacturer of a product can be found liable for damages caused by its product when either the user or someone else is harmed by either the intended or reasonably foreseeable use of a particular item. Generally, this is when a product malfunctions. A classic example is an oven exploding while being used to cook a Sunday roast subsequently hurting someone in the kitchen. Another critical component of such a suit is that the use of the item at question must be a legal usage. In other words, a company is generally not held liable for damages caused by their product when it is used in an unintended and illegal manner. This goes to the foreseeable usage of the item, as previously mentioned. To continue with the Sunday roast scenario, no one would suggest that the manufacturer of an oven would be liable to the family of a loved one who was trapped and cooked inside said oven in lieu of the roast by a deranged family member.
However, the unique argument being made here is that the manufacturer specifically pitched their product in such a way as to knowingly increase the odds of their product being used to harm someone or with complete disregard as to this possibility. In our oven example, this would look like the manufacturer using advertisements depicting their oven being used to harm someone or targeting a particular demographic who they had reason to believe was predisposed to such criminal activity. I’ll save you the graphic depiction of such an advertisement here. I think this is a rather large jump for a jury to make.
To drive this point further, I’m going to compare and contrast this incident to other examples of product liability scenarios. Let’s start with a drunk driver. Under the law, either a bar tender or the cashier at a convenience store can potentially be held liable for damages caused by a driver in a drunk driving related injury. These are referred to as dram shop laws. Under these statues, someone who provides alcohol to a visibly impaired individual can be held liable were that person to then harm someone while driving drunk. While the bartender can be on the hook, Budweiser is not, specifically for the before mentioned reasons. The product they manufactured operated as intended and it was not used in an illegal or in an unforeseeable manner. Also, Budweiser didn’t advertise this product to encourage impairment or negligent driving practices.
Another classic example of product liability is the tobacco industry. Several tobacco companies have been held liable for damages caused by their products. The reason being that they essentially lied about the effects of their product and what they contained. This resulted in the legal and intended usage of a perfectly operating cigarette causing harm to consumers and bystanders. To try to compare this to our shooting scenario. This would be as if Remington knew that their AR-15 firearm somehow caused individuals to becoming criminally violent and use said weapon to commit illegal acts. Of course no one, not even the plaintiffs in this particular case are trying to make that case. However, these tobacco companies were also found to be liable because they targeted young people for their harmful products by depicting smoking as being the cool thing to do. Therefore, there is some precedent for the argument being made by the plaintiffs. However, it is the specific application of this precedent to this scenario that I’m opposing here.
To pivot back to the case of the Sandy Hook attack, the plaintiffs in this case are arguing that Remington should be held liable specifically because they target the sale of their product to young individuals. They also claim that they [Remington] specifically built up the idea of using their product in a glorified war-like scenario. The argument being that Remington, through their advertising, targeted certain individuals who romanticize violence with firearms. While a creative argument, I seriously doubt any reasonable person would come to the conclusion that Remington in any way was trying to pitch their AR-15 as a tool which they intended to be used to illegally harm another individual. In order for the plaintiffs to be successful here, they would have to convince a court that Remington intentionally advertised this firearm as a tool to be used to commit crimes. Even if this were the case in the basement of Remington headquarters, it is worth noting that it was the mother, not the murderous son, who purchased this firearm. You’ll recall that the shooter had to kill his mother and take the gun, both of which are criminal acts, in order to be able to play out any fantasy he had about the product. Therefore, the supposedly sinister sales methods of Remington didn’t work, unless we’re to believe that the shooter in Newton simply beat his mother to the punch.
When a company makes a product that malfunctions and harms someone, they should be held liable. If they lie about the impact of the usage of their product, they should be held liable. I’m not aware of anyone who disagrees with these positions. People do bad things and hurt others. Usually, when they do, they use a tool or some item to perform said acts. In virtually every incident of such an action, any tool used to inflict harm is used in a way that the manufacturer of said product neither ever envisioned nor intended. The maker of a knife surely didn’t make their product to be used to commit murder. Louisville Slugger doesn’t make baseball bats for the purpose of armed robberies. In the same vein, Remington did not manufacture their AR-15 to be used to kill elementary school children, nor can the argument reasonably be made that they could have foreseen such use of their product. This suit is, frankly, a joke and doesn’t deserve one penny of the tax payer dollars it will take in being argued before a court of law.