A group of doctors are asking the Connecticut state Supreme Court to reinstate a lawsuit against Remington Outdoor Co. after a lower court dismissed the case, essentially arguing that civilians are too incompetent to be trusted with firearms.
In December 2012, a mentally disturbed Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle to shoot 20 first-graders and six educators at a Newtown, Connecticut school. In 2015, the families of nine of the children and adults killed at the Newtown school, and a teacher who survived the shooting, sued Remington Arms, the parent company of Bushmaster Firearms.
Negligent entrustment for everyone?
In the 2015 lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed Remington “oppressively, immorally, and unscrupulously” marketed a rifle with “assaultive qualities” to civilians. The group argued that Remington should be held liable for the deaths since they sold the rifle used in the incident to a civilian (Lanza’s mother), and that they should have known that civilians cannot be trusted with such guns.
Lawyers for Remington said the rifle was made, distributed and sold legally, and that they are protected from such lawsuits by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was passed by Congress in 2005. It protects gun makers from lawsuits involving their firearms, but it allows for lawsuits where a gun maker “negligently entrusts” a firearm to another. This exception is generally understood to apply to specific individuals and isolated situations, such as a gun maker who knowingly hires a convicted felon with a history of armed robbery, and then gives them the keys to the gun store. If the felon then takes a gun from the store and uses it in another robbery, the gun maker can be held liable for “negligent entrustment”, i.e. for knowingly entrusting the felon with their guns.
In the 2015 lawsuit, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Remington’s sales to civilians constituted “negligent entrustment” and that the plaintiffs should therefore be allowed to sue Remington, despite the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. Essentially, the plaintiffs were arguing that civilians generally could not be trusted to own such firearms and that Remington’s sales to civilians were therefore “negligent”.
The court disagreed.
In its October 2016 ruling, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis granted a motion by Remington Arms to dismiss the lawsuit. Citing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, Judge Bellis explained, “Entrustment can be considered negligent only if there is actual or constructive knowledge that the entrustee is incompetent or has a dangerous propensity”. The Judge then explained the fallacy of the plaintiff’s basic arguments in assuming all civilians are incompetent, stating, “To extend this theory to the general public would be a dramatic change under the law”. Said Bellis, “It would imply that the general public lacks ordinary prudence”.
Doctors claim civilians too incompetent to own firearms
On Tuesday, a group of 10 doctors announced they would file a “friend of the court” brief with the Connecticut Supreme Court. The doctors allege, “These military weapons are completely distinct from handguns and rifles used for hunting or self-defense… They can cause enormous human carnage, destruction and chaos with their high energy and rapid fire bullets”. The doctors believe the Superior Court got it wrong and that negligent entrustment can be applied to the general public. In effect, the doctors are asserting that civilians are simply too incompetent to be trusted with firearms.
According to data provided by the Center for Disease Control, an average of 11,184 people die each year as a result of gun crimes. By contrast, an estimated 225,000 people die each year from some form of medical malpractice, including incorrect dosages, surgical errors, and wrong diagnosis. Medical negligence is the third most common cause of death in the United States, far surpassing gun deaths.
Should the doctors in this case hope to convince the court to allow “negligent entrustment” claims against an entire industry for providing something to the general public that might result in death, they might want to consider purchasing additional malpractice insurance before they proceed.