January 11, 2008
• Frevalous D.C. Suit Tossed
Federal Law Negates D.C.’s Suit Against Gunmakers, Judge Rules
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; Page B04
A lawsuit in the District against gunmakers was dismissed yesterday by a D.C. Superior Court judge who ruled that the suit was precisely the sort of claim that a new federal law was intended to block.
In a 37-page opinion, Judge Brook Hedge wrote that the city and the federal government had two competing policies, and only one could prevail.
The D.C. Council, she wrote, had determined that assault weapons have “little or no social benefit but at the same time pernicious consequences for the health and safety of District residents and visitors.” Congress, however, “has trumped local law by passing legislation to protect the profits of such manufacturers,” she wrote.
The suit, filed by the city and by victims of gun violence and their families, aimed to hold gun manufacturers liable for the flow of firearms into the District and for the carnage created by the sale of illegal weapons.
Under D.C. law, only law enforcement officers are authorized to carry firearms in the District. But gun violence is a chronic problem in the city, nourished by a steady supply of weapons from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and other states with more relaxed gun laws.
District of Columbia v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp ., filed in 2000, was an attempt to address the situation. The plaintiffs faced formidable challenges in the courts and on Capitol Hill, and an act of Congress last year appears to have sealed the fate of the lawsuit and others like it.
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed by President Bush in October after winning easy House and Senate approval, enacted broad liability protections for the country’s gun industry.
Gun-control advocates blame gunmakers for loose distribution systems that have allowed criminals easy access to assault weapons. Local governments have sued to force changes in the way guns are sold and repayment for police work and medical costs associated with treating victims, particularly those shot by high-powered weapons.
Gunmakers and trade groups say the industry has been made a scapegoat for lax law enforcement and the actions of criminals.
The suit filed by the District and gun violence victims was among the most aggressive of many such suits filed across the country. As with many of those suits, it claimed that the manufacturers create a public nuisance with their products and were conducting business with little regard for the risks their products created.
But the D.C. suit went a step further, arguing that under a 1990 District law, the manufacturer, dealer or importer of an assault weapon or machine gun can be held liable for damages arising from an injury or death that results from the discharge of a firearm in the District.
In 2002, D.C. Superior Court Judge Cheryl M. Long threw out the lawsuit, rejecting the nuisance and negligence claims and concluding that a 1990 statute, the Assault Weapon Manufacturing Strict Liability Act, was unconstitutional.
In 2004, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld much of Long’s ruling but said the city could sue under the strict liability statute. In April 2005, the full Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, sending the case back to Superior Court.
After the new liability protections for the gun industry were enacted in 2005, manufacturers petitioned Superior Court to dismiss the suit. The plaintiffs countered that their suit met an exception in the new federal law and that the law was unconstitutional in any event.
Hedge rejected those legal arguments.
“The Court is faced with a classic tension between two elected branches of different governments, two equally clear legislative judgments, but each enforcing opposite policies,” Hedge wrote.
“At bottom,” she said, the federal law was enacted “to prohibit the very types of lawsuits the Strict Liability Act allows.”
And unless she was persuaded that the federal law was unconstitutional — which she was not — the federal law would prevail, she wrote.
The D.C. attorney general’s office and Wilmer Hale, the firm that is the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said yesterday that they are weighing whether to appeal the ruling to the D.C. Court of Appeals.