Soto v. Bushmaster Firearms Int'l, LLC, SC 19832

Decision Date19 March 2019
Docket NumberSC 19833,SC 19832
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut

Palmer, McDonald, Robinson, Vertefeuille, Mullins, Kahn and Elgo, Js.*


The plaintiffs, administrators of the estates of nine victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, brought an action in December, 2014, pursuant to this state's wrongful death statute (§ 52-555), seeking damages, among other relief, from the defendants, the manufacturers, distributors and direct sellers of the semiautomatic rifle that the perpetrator, L, used to shoot the victims. Sometime prior to March, 2010, the rifle was manufactured by certain of the defendants, sold to the defendant distributors, and then resold to the defendant direct sellers, who operated a retail gun store in Connecticut. In March, 2010, L's mother purchased the rifle from that store. The rifle is capable of rapid semiautomatic fire, accommodates large capacity magazines, and bullets fired therefrom travel at such a high velocity that they cause a shockwave while passing through a human body, often resulting in catastrophic injuries, even in areas remote to the direct bullet wound. On the date of the shooting, L retrieved the rifle, along with multiple thirty round magazines, drove to the school, shot his way in, and proceeded to fatally shoot twenty-six people, including the plaintiffs' decedents, in less than four and one-half minutes. The gravamen of the plaintiffs' complaint was that the defendants negligently entrusted to civilian consumers an assault rifle that is suitable for use only by military and law enforcement personnel and violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) (§ 42-110a et seq.) through the sale or wrongful marketing of the rifle. The plaintiffs' first theory of liability was that the rifle is a military grade weapon that is grossly ill-suited for legitimate civilian purposes such as self-defense or recreation, that the rifle and other similar semiautomatic weapons have become the weapon of choice for mass shootings and, therefore, that the risks associated with selling the rifle to the civilian market far outweigh any potential benefits, that the defendants continued to sell the rifle despite their knowledge of these facts, and that it therefore was negligent and an unfair trade practice under CUTPA for the defendants to sell the weapon, knowing that it eventually would be purchased by a civilian customer who might share it with other civilian users. The plaintiffs' second theory of liability was that the defendants marketed the rifle, through advertising and product catalogs, in an unethical, oppressive, immoral, and unscrupulous manner by extolling the militaristic and assaultive qualities of the rifle and reinforcing the image of the rifle as a combat weapon that is intended to be used for the purposes of waging war and killing human beings. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants advertised this rifle differently from how they would promote and sell rifles intended for legal civilian purposes such as hunting and recreation. In connection with this second theory of liability, the plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants' marketing of the rifle to civilians for offensive assault missions was a substantial factor in causing the decedents' injuries in that L's attack, had it occurred at all, would have been less lethal if L had not been encouraged by the defendants' marketing campaign to select the rifle in question as his weapon of choice. The defendants moved to strike the complaint, contending that all of the plaintiffs' claims were barred by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) (15 U.S.C. §§ 7901 through 7903 [2012]), which, subject to certain enumerated exceptions, immunizes firearms manufacturers, distributors, and dealers from civil liability for crimes committed by third parties using their weapons. The defendants contended alternatively that the plaintiffs failed to state a legally valid negligent entrustment claim under Connecticut common law and that their claims predicated on alleged CUTPA violations were legally insufficient because, among other reasons, the plaintiffs lacked standing under CUTPA, their claims were time barred by CUTPA's three year statute of limitations (§ 42-110g [f]), personal injuries and death are not cognizable damages under CUTPA, and their CUTPA claims were barred by the exclusivity provision of the Connecticut Product Liability Act (§ 52-572n [a]). In granting the defendants' motions to strike the plaintiffs' complaint, the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs' allegations did not fit within the common-law tort of negligent entrustment, PLCAA barred the plaintiffs' claims insofar as those claims sounded in negligent entrustment, and the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring wrongful death claims predicated on CUTPA violations because they never entered into a business relationship with the defendants. On appeal from the trial court's judgment in favor of the defendants, held:

1. The trial court correctly concluded that the plaintiffs did not plead a legally sufficient cause of action based on negligent entrustment under this state's common law and, therefore, properly struck the plaintiffs' claims predicated on that legal theory: the plaintiffs failed to establish that the defendants had any reason to expect that L's mother, the direct purchaser of the rifle, was likely to use the rifle in an unsafe manner or in a manner that would involve an unreasonable risk of physical harm; moreover, this court declined the plaintiffs' invitation to expand the common-law doctrine of negligent entrustment to allow such a cause of action to proceed on a theory that it was reasonably foreseeable to the defendants that, following the initial entrustment of a dangerous instrumentality, such as the rifle in question, that instrumentality would come into the possession of someone like L, who would use it in an unsafe manner, and, in any event, it was unnecessary to decide whether, in the present case, a cause of action for negligent entrustment could proceed under such a theory because the plaintiffs did not allege that any of the defendants possessed any knowledge or had any specific reason to believe either that L's mother would share the rifle with L or that L was especially likely to operate it unsafely or illegally; furthermore, to the extent that the plaintiffs were seeking to pursue their negligent entrustment claim on the theory that any commercial sale of assault weapons to civilian users constitutes negligent entrustment because the societal costs of such sales outweigh the perceived benefits, this court followed the lead of other courts in rejecting that theory.

2. The trial court improperly struck the plaintiffs' claims under CUTPA on the ground that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were third-party victims who did not have a consumer or commercial relationship with the defendants: upon review of the text of § 42-110g (a), the provision of CUTPA creating a private right of action for persons injured by unfair trade practices, and its legislative history, and in light of the broad scope and remedial purpose of CUTPA, this court concluded that CUTPA authorizes any person who has suffered an ascertainable financial loss caused by an unfair trade practice to bring an action under CUTPA, regardless of whether they had a business relationship with the person or entity that engaged in the prohibited practice; moreover, prior case law on which the trial court had relied in striking the plaintiffs' CUTPA claims for lack of standing did not recognize a business relationship requirement, notwithstanding the defendants' claim to the contrary, and, therefore, principles of stare decisis and legislative acquiescence did not require this court to impose a business relationship requirement in the context of this case; furthermore, the defendants could not prevail on their claim that prudential concerns supported the restriction of CUTPA standing to persons who have a direct business relationship with the alleged wrongdoer, as none of the rationales that underlie the standing doctrine, either generally or in the specific context of unfair trade practice litigation, supported the denial of standing to the plaintiffs in the present case, in which the link between the allegedly wrongful conduct and the plaintiffs' injuries was far more direct and less attenuated than in other cases in which this court has held that the plaintiffs lacked standing under CUTPA on the ground that the harms alleged were too indirect, remote and derivative with respect to the alleged wrongdoer's conduct.

3. This court concluded that a cause of action for wrongful death predicated on a CUTPA violation must comply with both the statute of limitations applicable to wrongful death claims, § 52-555 (a), which is two years from the date of death and no more than five years from the date of the act or omission complained of, and the statute of limitations applicable to CUTPA claims, § 42-110g (f), which is three years from the date of the alleged violation, this court having reasoned that any limitation period contained in a statute such as CUTPA, which creates a right of action that did not exist at common law, constitutes an essential element of the cause of action created thereunder, and that, under this state's wrongful death statute, an action will lie only insofar as the decedent, had he or she survived, could have satisfied all of the elements of the underlying theory of liability on which the allegedly wrongful death is predicated; because it was undisputed that the manufacturing, distribution and final sale of the rifle to L's mother all occurred at least three years prior to the commencement of the present action, the plaintiffs' wrongful death claims...

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