Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wisconsin jury grants $5 million in case against gun store for negligent sale of a gun which was later used to kill two police officers

In 2005, Congress enacted a statute that gives gun dealers immunity from liability for injuries caused by guns sold by them unless the sellers knew or should have known the sale was illegal or likely to pose a danger.  (See the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act).  More than 30 states have adopted similar laws.

Since 2005 only one case against a gun seller had reached a jury and the jury found for the defendant.  That changed two days ago when a jury in Wisconsin awarded more than $5 million in damages to two police officers who had been severely wounded with a pistol that a local gun shop sold to a straw buyer in 2009.  The New York Times has more details here.  Slate has more here (including links to other sources).

The jury found that the store had been negligent in selling the gun because there were signs that the person seeking to buy the gun was fronting for an 18-year-old who accompanied him to the store. One month after the purchase, the 18-year-old shot the plaintiffs, leaving one of them with brain damage and a destroyed eye.

The decision is surprising for a couple of reasons.  First, usually the effect of the federal statute, and of similar state statutes, is to prevent liability of gun sellers for the consequences of the conduct of those who use the guns. 

Second, typically, defendants in this type of case will argue that the conduct of the person using the gun should be seen as a superseding cause that severs the connection between the negligent conduct upon which the claim is based and the injury for which the plaintiff seeks recovery. I've always thought that courts tend to be receptive to this argument. If the argument was raised, I wonder if maybe, given the string of recent school shootings, opinions are starting to shift on the issue.  I don't know if this argument was made in this particular case, but I can't imagine it wasn't.  The defendant would have argued that even if it was negligent, the conduct of the person who got the gun was unforeseeable.  If the argument was raised, the court probably concluded that was for the jury to decide, and now we know how they decided it.

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