In a unanimous decision today, the D.C. Court of Appeals tossed a long-running suit by the D.C. government against more than 20 of the nation’s largest gunmakers, importers, or distributors. The court found that the suit is now barred by federal law, but the decision noted that the District might have kept the suit alive if it had initially pursued another line of arguments. The case also included nine individual plaintiffs who had been shot or were survivors of gunshot victims.
In 2005, the court issued an en banc decision which reversed the dismissal of the case in D.C. Superior Court. While the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of negligence and public nuisance claims, it reversed the dismissal of claims that the gunmakers had violated the D.C. Assault Weapons Manufacturing Strict Liability Act of 1990. Under that law, gunmakers, importers, or distributors of assault weapons or machine guns “shall be held strictly liable in tort, without regard to fault or proof of defect, for all direct and consequential damages that arise from bodily injury or death” resulting from discharge of the weapons in the District.
But later that same year, Congress passed a law that prohibited a growing number of similar suits across the country, which essentially made the District's strict liability act moot. The federal law also required the dismissal of most pending gun liability suits nationwide, so the D.C. Court of Appeals tossed the District’s suit today after rejecting a due process argument. The defendants had included Beretta U.S.A. Corp., Browning Arms Co., Colt's Manufacturing Co., Glock, Inc., Sigarms, and Smith & Wesson Corp.
However, the court noted that the suit may have continued if D.C. government attorneys had initially sought to prove violations of another local law that prohibits a gunmaker or seller from knowingly and willfully engaging in illegal sales of firearms. While it would have been much more difficult to prove complicity in illegal firearms sales, such an argument could have fit into an exclusion in the new federal law, the decision stated. Judge Michael Farrell wrote the panel decision issued today and the court's 2005 en banc opinion.
“The plaintiffs will view this as small comfort to them since they chose, as was their right, to pursue another cause of action with substantially reduced proof requirements,” the decision stated.