Pa. appellate court calls US law barring suits against gun makers unconstitutional

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A Pennsylvania appellate court has declared unconstitutional a federal law that protects firearms manufacturers from almost any lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence. - Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — In what gun control advocates described Tuesday as a historic victory, a Pennsylvania appellate court has declared unconstitutional a federal law that protects firearms manufacturers from almost any lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence.

The decision by a three-judge panel of Superior Court is the first in the nation to directly attack a controversial 2005 statute known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which has made it all but impossible for people to sue gun makers for injuries inflicted by firearms used in crimes.

The panel said in its opinion Monday that the law infringes upon the right of state courts and legislatures to decide for themselves the limits of legal liability for injuries within their state’s borders.

Legal experts remained skeptical that the opinion released Monday would have far-reaching implications for potential plaintiffs in other suits — with some going as far as to describe the court’s reasoning as “provocative” and “aggressive” in a way that would almost certainly result in an appeal and likely end up with the decision being overturned.

“Creative in law is very close to being unprecedented,” said Temple University law professor Craig Green. “And unprecedented in law is very often wrong.”

The ruling arose from a case from Westmoreland County, where in 2016, 13-year-old James Gustafson was accidentally shot and killed by his friend John Burnsworth, who was playing with a semiautomatic pistol that he believed to be unloaded.

Burnsworth had removed the ammunition magazine from the gun before he pointed the weapon at his friend and pulled the trigger. But a bullet remained in the chamber and Gustafson was killed.

Gustafson’s parents sued the maker of the gun, Illinois-based Springfield Armory Inc., in 2018, arguing that the company had been negligent by not including adequate warnings or safety features that would stop the weapon from firing when its ammunition clip was removed.

From the outset, their case faced long odds.

The PLCAA has barred hundreds of suits like theirs since it was enacted in 2005. Lawmakers passed the statute that year amid an intense lobbying effort by groups like the National Rifle Association, which argued that waves of legal claims against manufacturers were a backdoor effort to implement gun control through court-ordered sanctions after previous efforts in Congress had failed.

And persistent efforts by Democrats to repeal it — most recently in a bill last year by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Pa., — have failed.

Most pertinent to gun violence victims, the statute bars lawsuits claiming design defects or manufacturer negligence when the person who fired the weapon has been criminally charged — the thinking being that it is the shooter, then, who is responsible for the victims’ injuries.

Westmoreland County prosecutors charged Burnsworth as a juvenile with involuntary manslaughter in Gustafson’s case. And as a result, a county judge decided in 2019 that the Gustafsons’ civil suit fell squarely within what the PLCAA prohibited and should be tossed.

In its opinion Monday, Superior Court agreed that the judge had interpreted the PLCAA correctly but found that the entire statute was unenforceable because Congress had overstepped its authority to pass it.

The U.S. Constitution empowers state courts and legislatures to decide questions of legal liability for injuries on their own, except when the matter affects commerce that crosses state lines

Backers of the PCLAA, like the NRA, argue that the gun industry operates nationwide and exposure to piecemeal judgments from courts across the country puts an unreasonable burden on manufacturers’ ability to conduct their business — a position the U.S. Justice Department supported by intervening in the Gustafsons’ case.

But the Superior Court balked at the suggestion that just because a gun might have crossed state lines at some point that it would forever put the weapon’s use under federal jurisdiction.

“Merely because, at some point in time, (a) gun passed through interstate commerce does not give Congress perpetual authority to regulate any harm it may cause,” wrote Judge Deborah A. Kunselman for the panel, which also included Judges John T. Bender and John L. Musmanno. “There is a beginning and an end point to congressional authority. … This is especially true, where, as here, the product kills someone who did not even purchase it.”

The court remanded the Gustafson case back to the lower court and instructed the judge to enter a finding calling the PLCAA “repugnant to the Constitution of the United States.”

Lawyers for Springfield did not immediately answer questions Tuesday on whether they would appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, said he doubted the ruling would stand if challenged in either one.

“I think the U.S. Supreme Court would not agree with this ruling,” he said. “It pushes the federalism jurisprudence farther than I think the court would be willing to go.”

Green, the Temple law professor, compared the unusual legal reasoning used by Superior Court in the Gustafson case to another recent court decision — a ruling this month by a federal judge in Pittsburgh that overturned Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus restrictions.

“Both cases are really remarkable developments — the federal case stressing economic liberties and the Superior Court stressing federalism and states’ rights,” he said. “Both in ways that haven’t really been done in decades.”

Still, he said of the Gustafson ruling: “The high likelihood is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will reverse this case.”

But for now, Kris Brown — president of Brady, the gun control advocacy group that represented the Gustafsons in their case — was ready to declare victory.

The ruling, he said in a statement, “takes us a giant stride closer to ensuring that victims of gun violence can hold the companies that profit from the pain of the American people accountable.”

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