Families who lost loved ones in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre can proceed with their wrongful-death lawsuit against Bushmaster Firearms International, manufacturer of the AR-15 rifle used to kill 20 children and six adults, a Connecticut Superior Court judge ruled on Thursday.
In a ruling likely to stir the gun-control debate and the Democratic presidential primary, Judge Barbara Bellis rejected arguments made by Bushmaster, a division of Remington Arms, and its co-defendants, who sought to have the lawsuit dismissed.
Bushmaster argued immunity from liability under a U.S. law designed to shield gunmakers from lawsuits when their products are used to commit crimes. The 2005 law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, has been used by gun manufacturers and retailers for more than a decade to successfully fend off hundreds of lawsuits related to gun crimes.
Bellis did not directly address the immunity question. Instead, she rejected Bushmaster's claim that because the law is federal, not state, the state Superior Court didn't have jurisdiction over the case.
“The judge is saying the defendants are wrong that the federal statute strips the court of the power to hear the case,” Sachin Padya, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, told the Stamford Advocate. “She says the law does not restrict the court’s power to hear the case.”
The judge's ruling, if it withstands appeals, could open the door for future challenges to liability immunity for gunmakers and sellers.
The Sandy Hook families contend Bushmaster, its parent companies, the gun distributor and the retailer that sold the rifle are liable for supplying a weapon unfit for civilian use. Thursday's ruling didn't deal with the merits of the claim.
Josh Koskoff, a lawyer for the Newtown families, applauded the ruling. “The families look forward to continuing their fight in court,” he said in a statement.
Read the judge's ruling. Story continues below.
The lawsuit also has implications for the presidential race. The campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been trying to deflect criticism from the senator's 2005 vote to pass the gun liability shield law -- legislation that's deeply unpopular with Democrats.
In a recent interview with the New York Daily News, Sanders weighed in on the Sandy Hook lawsuit. "Do I think the victims of a crime with a gun should be able to sue the manufacturer? No, I don't," he said.
Sanders' support for the firearms industry protection law offers Hillary Clinton an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with her rival for the Democratic nomination. Clinton also was a senator when the law was passed, but voted against it.
During an appearance on "The View" this month, Sanders said the bill had good provisions in it that were overshadowed by the immunity for gunmakers.
Clinton, in a statement on Thursday, lauded the judge's decision. She said the federal gun liability law remains "a major obstacle for these families and others seeking to hold these gun companies accountable."
Tucked into the statement was a reminder that Sanders does not believe victims should be able to sue gun companies.
The next step in the Sandy Hook lawsuit is a status conference between the judge and lawyers scheduled for April 19.