The families of nine Sandy Hook school shooting victims settled a lawsuit for $73 million Tuesday against the maker of the AR-15-style rifle used in the massacre, in what is believed to be the largest payout by a gun manufacturer in a mass shooting case.
The agreement is a significant setback to the firearms industry because the lawsuit worked around the federal law protecting gun companies from litigation by arguing that the manufacturer’s marketing of the weapon had violated Connecticut consumer law.
The families argued that Remington, the gunmaker, promoted sales of the weapon that appealed to troubled men like the killer who stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, killing 20 first graders and six adults. The lawsuit was filed by relatives of five of the children and four of the adults.
“These nine families have shared a single goal from the very beginning: to do whatever they could to help prevent the next Sandy Hook,” said Josh Koskoff, the lead lawyer for the families. “It is hard to imagine an outcome that better accomplishes that goal.”
In addition to the financial settlement, lawyers for the families said that Remington agreed to release thousands of pages of internal company documents, including possible plans for how to market the weapon used in the massacre — a stipulation that had been a key sticking point during negotiations.
The families have said that a central aim of the lawsuit was to pry open the industry and expose it to more scrutiny. Remington had resisted turning over any internal documents, arguing that the families had not presented a legal justification for seeking them.
Even in a country where mass shootings had become a painfully common occurrence, the Sandy Hook massacre was a gut-wrenching moment because so many of the victims were so young. President Barack Obama, in a powerful speech at a memorial, blended words of bereavement with a promise to curb the spread of firearms, though in the end his vow yielded little legislative action.
President Joe Biden, in a statement Tuesday night, praised the settlement, saying, “While this settlement does not erase the pain of that tragic day, it does begin the necessary work of holding gun manufacturers accountable for manufacturing weapons of war and irresponsibly marketing these firearms.”
He called for the repeal of the federal law that protects gun companies and said: “In the meantime, I will continue to urge state and local lawmakers, lawyers and survivors of gun violence to pursue efforts to replicate the success of the Sandy Hook families.”
Legal experts stressed that not only have most federal gun control efforts failed, but federal immunity for gunmakers remains a formidable barrier to litigation. Still, the outcome in this case has shown that it is possible to circumvent the federal shield.
Like Connecticut, New York has adopted a consumer protection measure that could be used against gunmakers; a similar bill has been introduced in California, and elected officials in other states, including New Jersey, are also considering introducing proposals that could offer a template to families of victims in mass shootings.
The families contended that Remington violated state law by promoting the weapon with an approach that appealed to so-called couch commandos and troubled young men like the gunman in the Sandy Hook massacre.
Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son Dylan was killed, said the documents included in the settlement were crucial — and “paint a picture of a company that lost its way, choosing more aggressive marketing campaigns for profit.”
Lawyers for the company did not immediately return calls for comment. The agreement was disclosed in documents filed in Connecticut Superior Court on Tuesday, but it did not divulge details of the settlement, including the amount the families would receive.
The financial settlement is being paid by insurance companies that had represented Remington, which is in bankruptcy. As a result, gun industry officials said that Remington Outdoor Co. “effectively no longer exists,” and the decision to settle “was not made by a member of the firearms industry.”
Gun industry representatives said the settlement would not set a pattern. “This settlement orchestrated by insurance companies has no impact on the strength and efficacy” of federal law, Mark Oliva, spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm trade association, said in a statement. That law, he added, “will continue to block baseless lawsuits that attempt to blame lawful industry companies for the criminal acts of third parties.”
The association remained confident that the company “would have prevailed if this case proceeded to trial,” Oliva said.
Still, the agreement is believed to be the largest and most significant settlement since the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association and congressional Republicans, enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, providing a potent legal shield to gun manufacturers and dealers. When President George W. Bush signed the legislation, he praised it as a necessary safeguard to “stem frivolous lawsuits.”
One of the biggest previous settlements had come a year earlier, in 2004, when Bushmaster and a weapons dealer agreed to pay $2.5 million to the families of people killed in the series of sniper attacks in 2001 in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, after they were sued by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a leading gun control group.
But the task has become much more difficult since the passage of the liability shield, which one top gun industry executive called the “only reason we have a firearms industry anymore.” In recent years, lawyers for anti-violence groups have increasingly turned to state-level laws to try to make their cases.
“This is an important win for victims of gun violence and the movement to hold the gun industry accountable,” said Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel for Brady, as the organization is now known. He has been suing gunmakers and dealers since the late 1990s. “It sends a powerful message to these executives — even with your special protections, you can and will be held accountable for gun violence,” he said.
Remington had proposed settling with the families for $33 million last year, as a trial date loomed. In July, Koskoff said the families turned the offer down because of its “glaring inadequacy.”
At the outset, legal experts said the case had little chance of succeeding, believing that the claims ran headlong into the federal protections, which have cut short other similar legal claims.
J. Adam Skaggs, chief counsel for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, recalled expressing his doubts to Koskoff, telling him, “You’re going to have a really hard time getting around the immunity law.”
In reference to that law, he said Tuesday: “This case says that it may be a hard needle to thread, but it can be threaded.”
The lawsuit seized upon an exception built into the law that allows for litigation over sales and marketing practices that violate state and federal law. The families said that Remington violated a state consumer law by marketing and promoting its products in a way that encouraged illegal behavior.
The families pointed to the way the company portrayed the AR-15-style Bushmaster rifle as a weapon of war, with the use of slogans and product placement in video games that invoked combat violence. The lawsuit contended that hypermasculine themes — including an advertisement with a photograph of the weapon and the slogan “Consider your man card reissued” — specifically appealed to troubled young men, like the Sandy Hook gunman, who was 20.
The lawsuit was originally filed in Connecticut state court in 2014, and it meandered its way through the court system for years without making much progress.
An appeal brought by the families elevated the case to the state Supreme Court, where it drew intense interest from both sides of the gun debate.
The state attorney general, gun violence prevention groups and a statewide association of school superintendents wrote to the court in support of the families’ case. But the National Shooting Sports Foundation argued that the case was centered on “a tragedy of unimaginable proportions,” yet the lawsuit was trying to achieve “regulation through litigation.”
Remington’s lawyers echoed the position in oral arguments.
“No matter how tragic,” James B. Vogts, a lawyer for the company, told the justices, “no matter how much we wish those children and their teachers were not lost and those damages not suffered, the law needs to be applied dispassionately.”
In a 4-3 ruling, the justices ruled that the case could move ahead based on a state law regarding unfair trade practices. Several months later, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the case to continue, denying an appeal brought by Remington.
Over years of recurring episodes of mass violence — including deadly shootings last year at a Colorado grocery store where 10 people were killed and a spree in which eight people were killed in massage parlors in and around Atlanta — those broad protections faced renewed scrutiny from activists and elected officials. Biden said last year he wanted to scrap them.
In New York, lawmakers passed legislation in June that would classify the illegal or improper marketing or sale of guns as a nuisance, a technical distinction that supporters said would bolster litigation against gun companies.
But Timothy D. Lytton, a law professor and expert on the firearms industry at Georgia State University, said that such state-level legislation is unlikely to be widespread.
Some efforts have been made in a handful of states like California to pass laws circumventing protections for gun manufacturers, but they remain rare. “Most of the country — or at least half the country — is not looking for ways to liberalize or open the door to litigation,” he said. “They’re looking for ways to expand gun rights and clamp down anything that would restrict supply.”
He and other legal experts cautioned that it was unclear if the settlement would open the floodgates to more litigation. “The question remains open as to whether or not this theory of liability is likely to be successful if it’s brought elsewhere,” Lytton said.
For families involved in the case, the agreement felt like a measure of justice.
“David and I will never have true justice,” said Francine Wheeler, whose son Ben was killed, speaking for herself and her husband at a news conference Tuesday. “True justice would be our 15-year-old, healthy and standing next to us right now. But Benny will never be 15. He will be 6 forever, because he is gone forever.”