In re Acad., Ltd., No. 19-0497

CourtSupreme Court of Texas
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE BOYD filed a concurring opinion.
PartiesIN RE ACADEMY, LTD. D/B/A ACADEMY SPORTS + OUTDOORS, RELATOR
Docket NumberNo. 19-0497
Decision Date25 June 2021

IN RE ACADEMY, LTD. D/B/A ACADEMY SPORTS + OUTDOORS, RELATOR

No. 19-0497

SUPREME COURT OF TEXAS

Argued October 6, 2020
June 25, 2021


ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS

JUSTICE LEHRMANN delivered the opinion of the Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE HECHT, JUSTICE DEVINE, JUSTICE BLACKLOCK, JUSTICE BUSBY, JUSTICE BLAND, and JUSTICE HUDDLE joined.

JUSTICE BOYD filed a concurring opinion.

This case arises out of the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting. Plaintiffs, who include victims of the shooting and their families, filed multiple suits against the retailer from which the perpetrator purchased the weapon used in the shooting. The retailer, Academy Sports + Outdoors (Academy),1 sought to avail itself of the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which Congress passed to protect firearm retailers and manufacturers from certain lawsuits seeking damages arising out of the criminal conduct of third parties. Academy moved for summary judgment under the PLCAA, but the trial court denied the motion. After unsuccessfully seeking mandamus relief in the court of appeals, Academy filed a

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petition for writ of mandamus in this Court, arguing that the PLCAA requires dismissal of the underlying suits and that Academy lacks an adequate remedy by appeal. We hold that the PLCAA bars the lawsuits and protects Academy from continued participation in litigation. Accordingly, we conditionally grant Academy's petition for writ of mandamus.

I. Background

On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs wielding a Model 8500 Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle fitted with a detachable thirty-round magazine.2 He killed twenty-six people and injured twenty more. Kelley had purchased the rifle, which was packaged with a thirty-round magazine manufactured by Magpul Industries Corp., from an Academy store in San Antonio on April 7, 2016. As part of that sales transaction, Kelley purchased an additional Magpul thirty-round magazine, sold separately. Kelley reported a Colorado address and presented a Colorado ID when buying the rifle, prompting certain requirements imposed by the federal Gun Control Act on the sale of a firearm to an out-of-state resident. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(3) (prohibiting such a sale unless "the transferee meets in person with the transferor to accomplish the transfer, and the sale, delivery, and receipt fully comply with the legal conditions of sale in both such States"). Academy properly processed the required ATF Form 4473, which Kelley completed under penalty of perjury at the time of sale.3

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Academy also ran the required background check on Kelley through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Although federal law disqualified Kelley from purchasing a firearm at the time of the sale—based in part on his conviction in a 2012 court-martial for assaulting his wife and stepson and his dishonorable discharge from the United States Air Force—that disqualifying information was not in the system, which authorized Academy to "Proceed" with the sale. Litigation against the Air Force for failing to collect, handle, and report the required information is ongoing in federal court. See Holcombe v. United States, 388 F. Supp. 3d 777, 785 (W.D. Tex. 2019).

The mandamus proceeding at issue here arises from four lawsuits filed against Academy in Texas district court by some of the survivors of the shooting and relatives of those killed.4 In all four suits, which were consolidated for pretrial matters, the plaintiffs assert claims for negligence; negligent hiring, training, and/or supervision; negligent entrustment; and gross negligence. The claims stem from Academy's sale of the Ruger AR-556 rifle and thirty-round magazine to Kelley, a Colorado resident. The plaintiffs allege that under the Gun Control Act, the "sale, delivery, and receipt" of the weapon must have fully complied with the laws of both Texas (the state of the sale) and Colorado (the state where the purchaser resided). 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(3). The plaintiffs further allege that, because Colorado law prohibits the sale or possession of magazines with a capacity of fifteen rounds or more (hereafter, large-capacity magazines), COLO. REV. STAT. §§ 18-12-301, -302, the rifle-magazine package that Kelley

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purchased could not legally be sold in Colorado. And because the sale to Kelley violated Colorado law, plaintiffs allege, the sale in turn violated the Gun Control Act.

Academy answered with a general denial. Academy also affirmatively asserts in its answer, among other defenses, that the PLCAA bars the plaintiffs' suits and that the sale complied with Texas, Colorado, and federal law because (1) Academy processed the required federal forms and conducted the required background check, which Kelley passed; (2) the Academy employees involved in the sale to Kelley observed no behavior that would disqualify him from purchasing a firearm; (3) the Gun Control Act's restrictions on sales to out-of-state residents apply to the sale of a firearm, not the sale of a magazine; and (4) the Colorado law at issue does not apply to sales outside Colorado.

Academy filed a traditional motion for summary judgment on the ground that the PLCAA, which generally prohibits a "qualified civil liability action"—that is, an action against a seller or manufacturer of firearms and related products for damages caused by a third party's criminal conduct—forecloses the plaintiffs' suits and compels their dismissal. 15 U.S.C. §§ 7902(a) ("A qualified civil liability action may not be brought in any Federal or State court."), 7903(5)(A) (defining "qualified civil liability action"). Although the PLCAA contains several enumerated exceptions to that general prohibition, Academy asserted that none of those exceptions apply and that the PLCAA grants it immunity from the plaintiffs' suits. In response, the plaintiffs argued that two of the PLCAA's exceptions—for (1) actions against a seller for negligent entrustment and (2) actions involving a seller's knowing violation of a law applicable to the product's sale—apply and allow the lawsuits to proceed. Id. § 7903(5)(A)(ii), (iii).

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The trial court held a hearing and denied Academy's motion for summary judgment. Academy moved for a permissive interlocutory appeal of the order, but the trial court denied that motion. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 51.014(d) (authorizing a trial court to permit an appeal from an otherwise unappealable order if certain conditions are met). Academy then filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the court of appeals, which denied the petition without substantive discussion. Academy now seeks mandamus relief in this Court.5

II. Discussion

Mandamus relief is an extraordinary remedy requiring the relator to show that (1) the trial court clearly abused its discretion and (2) the relator lacks an adequate remedy on appeal. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 135-36, 138 (Tex. 2004) (orig. proceeding). We examine each prong in turn.

A. Abuse of Discretion

A trial court abuses its discretion when it acts with disregard of guiding rules or principles or when it acts in an arbitrary or unreasonable manner. In re Garza, 544 S.W.3d 836, 840 (Tex. 2018) (orig. proceeding). A trial court's "failure to analyze or apply the law correctly is an abuse of discretion." In re Am. Homestar of Lancaster, Inc., 50 S.W.3d 480, 483 (Tex. 2001) (orig. proceeding) (citation omitted). Here, the propriety of the trial court's order denying Academy's summary-judgment motion hinges on a legal issue: the proper interpretation and application of the PLCAA. See Lockheed Martin Corp. v. Hegar, 601 S.W.3d 769, 774 (Tex. 2020) (reiterating that statutory interpretation is an issue of law).

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In analyzing federal statutes, we apply principles substantially similar to those that govern our interpretation of Texas law. "The starting point in discerning congressional intent is the existing statutory text." Lamie v. U.S. Trustee, 540 U.S. 526, 534 (2004); see also Silguero v. CSL Plasma, Inc., 579 S.W.3d 53, 59 (Tex. 2019) (explaining that our goal in interpreting a statute is to effectuate legislative intent and that our most reliable guide is the statute's text). We enforce a statute according to its plain language unless doing so would lead to an absurd result. Lamie, 540 U.S. at 534; Abutahoun v. Dow Chem. Co., 463 S.W.3d 42, 46 (Tex. 2015). We consider statutes as a whole, reading the chosen words "in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme." Davis v. Mich. Dep't of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803, 809 (1989); see also Zanchi v. Lane, 408 S.W.3d 373, 376 (Tex. 2013). We thus begin our analysis by reviewing the structure of the PLCAA and its exceptions before turning to the applicability of the exceptions themselves.6

1. The PLCAA

In enacting the PLCAA in 2005, Congress expressly enumerated its underlying findings, including a finding that businesses "engaged in interstate and foreign commerce through the lawful design, manufacture, marketing, distribution, importation, or sale to the public of firearms or ammunition products . . . are not, and should not, be liable for the harm caused by those who criminally or unlawfully misuse [such] products that function as designed and intended." 15 U.S.C. § 7901(a)(5). Congress sought to avoid "[t]he possibility of imposing liability on an

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entire industry for harm that is solely caused by others." Id. § 7901(a)(6). Relatedly, one of the PLCAA's stated purposes is to "prohibit causes of action against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of firearms or ammunition products, and their trade associations, for the harm solely caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse" of those products by a third party. Id. § 7901(b)(1).

To address the concerns underlying the statute's enactment, the PLCAA prohibits, with six exceptions, a category of civil actions against manufacturers and...

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