On February 15, 2022, Remington Arms, manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR15-style rifle, agreed to pay $73 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the families of nine of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School school shooting that occurred on December 14, 2012. The $73 million will be paid by four of Remington’s insurers (and likely their reinsurers).
Why is this a big deal? Insurers and reinsurers providing liability coverage for gun manufacturers did so believing that federal law protected gun manufacturers from liability arising from shootings under the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). It seems likely that policy terms and conditions as well as pricing of the risk reflected that perceived liability protection.
Things have changed. The Connecticut plaintiffs filed their suit under the Connecticut Fair Trade Practices Act. The plaintiffs alleged that the Bushmaster was a combat weapon and that Remington improperly marketed it to civilians – particularly targeting young men. In 2019, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the federal PLCAA did have some carve-outs for state laws and subsequently the court declined Remington’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. It seems a safe bet that the families, of other Connecticut gun violence victims will file similar suits over past and/or future incidents.
Okay, so this is Connecticut. But it seems likely that this lawsuit will be used as a template by plaintiffs in other states that have similar statutes – and many do. This lawsuit and settlement could result in burgeoning litigation against gun manufacturers.
Presumably, even a single victim shot with a Bushmaster, or any gun that could be argued is a combat weapon, could file a similar suit under a state’s Fair Trade Practices Act.
Which other guns could be deemed “combat weapons” and therefore unfit for civilian populations? Only time and future litigation will tell. One possible example; WEE1 Tactical, the manufacturer of a weapon similar to the Bushmaster, may find itself in the litigation crosshairs. A look at AR-15-style guns on Wikipedia results in a list of 27 guns by 26 manufacturers – and I doubt this is a comprehensive list. Would a machine pistol be considered a “combat weapon?” How many other types of firearms might be deemed “combat weapons?”
WEE1 Tactical has recently begun advertising the JR-15 – a smaller, lighter version of the AR-15 that fires lighter .22 LR caliber rounds for children. WEE1’s website states “The JR-15 is the first in a line of shooting platforms that will safely help adults introduce children to the shooting sports.” Given that the plaintiffs in the Sandy Hook case stressed the firm was specifically marketing the Bushmaster to young men, it will be interesting to see how this marketing strategy will play out in any future similar litigation.
There’s been another crack in the perceived liability protection afforded to gun manufacturers in the U.S. Last year, the State of New York enacted a law “that would classify the illegal or improper marketing or sale of guns as a nuisance…that supporters said would bolster litigation against gun companies.”
Will other states follow? Certainly not all will, but even if a few more states enact similar statutes the defense and indemnity costs could be significant to the gun manufacturers and their insurers and reinsurers.
Bushmaster has settled once before with the families of victims shot by one of its guns. In 2004, the company agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle with the families of victims shot by the D.C. Sniper in 2002. Not much changed after that settlement. It may be different this time.
What about other entities in the gun liability chain? If the gun manufacturer can be held libel for marketing a combat weapon to civilians. Can wholesalers and retailers also be found liable? Could courts find that they also played a role in putting what are deemed “combat weapons” into the hands of civilians? If so, the costs to the Property/Casualty insurance industry will be greater.
Unfortunately, mass shootings and gun violence are on the rise in the United States. The number of mass shootings (defined as 4 or more people shot – killed or wounded) have increased every year except one from 2014 to 2021. In 2014 there were 269 mass shootings in the U.S. By 2021, this increased to 691 mass shootings. There have been 2,402 mass shootings in the U.S. in the past five years. And we’ve only mentioned mass shootings incidents. “Guns were involved in 75% of all homicides and 91% of homicides involving youths between 2018 and 2019…those new numbers represent a significant and troubling uptick from a decade before.”
I suspect insurers and reinsurers providing liability for those in the manufacture and sale of guns will see an increasing number of lawsuits.
 “Gun Deaths Continue To Rise In American Cities,” U.S. News, 1/10/22, https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2022-01-10/gun-deaths-continue-to-rise-in-americas-cities