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Product Liability Law BlogLegal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

Dangerous Advertising: Violations of a fair trade practices statute creates new liability for firearm manufacturers and sellers

April 4, 2019 | James Seigfreid and Andreea Sharkey

On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza used his mother’s XM15-E2S to shoot his way into the locked Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza killed twenty-six persons and wounded two others. The attack lasted four and one-half minutes. One hundred fifty-four rounds from Lanza’s XM15-E2S were fired.

The XM15-E2S Bushmaster is an AR-15 assault style semi-automatic rifle. It is similar to the standard issue M16 military service rifle used by the United States Armed Forces. Following the shooting, plaintiffs (Sandy Hook parents and others) filed actions against the Bushmaster Firearms International, LLC company (Remington) alleging a number of distinctive theories of liability. Among these was the claim that defendant wrongfully advertised and marketed Lanza’s assault rifle, emphasizing its character as a military style assault rifle suitable for offensive combat missions. Plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that this advertising was unethical, oppressive, immoral, unscrupulous, and in violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (“CUTPA”). Defendants countered that the CUTPA was not broad enough to encompass such a claim and that defendants were immunized from suit by the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”).

The trial court agreed. On appeal, however, the Connecticut Supreme Court in Soto v. Bushmaster Firearms International, et al. concluded that the PLCAA did not immunize firearms manufacturers or suppliers who engage in wrongful marketing practices promoting criminal conduct. The Court also found that the CUTPA was indeed broad enough to address wrongful advertising practices and that it would fall to a jury to decide whether or not the defendant’s advertising violated standards set forth in Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The CUTPA is an unfair and deceptive acts and practices statute with counterparts in every state. These acts prohibit deceptive, unfair and unconscionable practices and commonly create private rights of action for individuals harmed by the practices prohibited. Many such statutes also create authority for governmental entities or state consumer protection officials to bring suit.

Historically, firearms manufacturers and sellers have relied on the PLCAA bar to claims and immunize them from suits for injuries caused by the criminal conduct of third-party gun users. The Court in Soto, however, held that the PLCAA did not insulate Bushmaster from claims related to its advertising and marketing of the XM15-E2S assault style weapon.

The Connecticut Supreme Court also found that while prior interpretations limited the reach of the CUTPA with respect to such claims, plaintiffs’ claims in this case would be permitted. The holding expands the scope of the Connecticut statute in at least three important respects: (1) plaintiffs no longer need to have a “commercial relationship” with defendant; (2) personal injuries are now a cognizable harm under the CUTPA; and (3) continuous advertising up to and including the date of plaintiffs’ filing prohibits the tolling of applicable statutes of limitation.

While this ruling greatly changes the use and landscape of the CUTPA in Connecticut, the Court has only addressed the issue of standing in this case and no disposition has yet been made on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims.

The ruling is likely to encourage plaintiffs in other states to challenge advertising and marketing by firearm manufacturers under similar and applicable unfair practices acts. Plaintiffs’ challenge in Connecticut may be the first of many such efforts yet to come.

Soto v. Bushmaster Firearms Int'l, LLC, 331 Conn. 53, 157 (2019)

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About Product Liability Law Blog

The BSCR Product Liability Blog examines significant developments, trends, and topics in product liability law of interest to individuals and product manufacturers, distributors and sellers. Learn more about the editor, David E. Eisenberg,  and our Product Liability practice.

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