Civil Lawsuits Following October 2017 Mass Shooting in Las Vegas, Part 1: Gun Industry Liability

Civil Lawsuits Following October 2017 Mass Shooting in Las Vegas, Part 1: Gun Industry Liability

This is the first of a two-part series concerning the recent mass shooting that left over 50 people dead and hundreds injured in Las Vegas when a gunman perched up in the hotel at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino opened fire on a massive concert event crowd below. The shooter is believed to have committed suicide moments after the assault. With the assassin now dead, who else may have potential civil liability associated with this tragedy? As with most of these mass shooting events in the last few years, civil case filings inevitably surface against various parties linked to the scene. Thus far, named defendants in civil actions include the Mandalay Bay and owner MGM Resorts, the concert’s promoter Live Nation, as well as a manufacturer whose weapon products were used to carry out the crime.

Background of Gun Industry Liability

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence brought a class-action suit against Slide Fire, a maker of “bump stocks”, which the shooter used. Gun industry companies have been sued in many recent mass shooting events, yet have avoided civil liability based on a federal law that shelters manufacturers and sellers of firearms. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) was enacted in 2005. Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University, explained it would be unprecedented for the plaintiffs to prevail in this action, although the hotel and concert promoters could potentially be found liable to some extent. He stated that no jury verdict against a gun manufacturer based on criminal usage of their weapons has ever survived reversal on appeal. He says that the opinion of the courts has been that gun violence is caused by the criminal—not the manufacturer. He cited last year’s dismissal of a claim against the maker of the weapon used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack as an example. One slight difference in this claim against the maker of bump stocks is that they are exclusively a gun component (accessory) manufacturer.

Understanding the PLCAA

The PLCAA passed in 2005 with bipartisan approval, and at the time over 30 states had some comparable laws already in place. For example, in Colorado, those who bring claims that violate this statute are potentially responsible for paying the legal defense fees of those they sue. These cases are generally matters of product liability that protect gun manufacturers and sellers when damages stem from “criminal or unlawful” misuse. A single successful claim against the makers of a weapon known as the “Saturday night special” was in a Maryland lawsuit.

Claims of product defect, defective design, and breach of warranty are not shielded by the PLCAA. Lawsuits may be brought against defendants, such as retailers, for acts committed by criminals using their guns. A retailer or dealer may be liable if they sold the weapon to a buyer without conducting the mandated background check on them, or if they knowingly sold the gun to someone under the influence (intoxicated).

“Bump Stock” Accessories Used by Las Vegas Shooter

Many U.S. jurisdictions restrict usage of “assault” weapons. A semi-automatic firearm is one that requires the shooter to pull the trigger to fire one shot, which differs from an automatic firearm that will fire continuously if the shooter remains holding down on the trigger. According to the Denver Post, the Las Vegas gunman used bump stocks in an attempt to convert his semi-automatic weapons to function as an automatic gun. Fully automatic weapons can fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition per minute. The bump stocks are tailored to assist in making these potentially dangerous conversions.

Colorado Claim Against Gun Supplier

In 2012, there was a deadly mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie complex where Lonnie and Sandy Phillips lost their daughter Jessi. The couple brought a suit against the retailer Lucky Gunner where the gunman had purchased roughly $4,000 in products used in the deadly shooting. The case was dismissed by a Colorado court based on the PLCAA and based on state law, the Phillips’ were forced to cover over $200,000 in legal expenses that the retailer incurred defending the claim. As a result, the couple was allegedly forced into bankruptcy.