By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
A Florida trial court erred by granting summary judgment favoring a handgun manufacturer in a lawsuit brought by the representatives of an individual who had died from a gunshot wound due to an allegedly defective pistol, an appellate panel in that state determined. Although the trial court held that the gun maker was immune from liability under federal law because the decedent purchased the pistol under false pretenses and continued to possess the pistol while taking illegal drugs, questions of fact remained as to the decedent’s drug use at the time he allegedly falsified an answer on the firearms-purchase form and whether he had been an unlawful drug user thereafter, the panel held, reversing and remanding the case for a determination of whether the product liability suit was a "qualified civil liability action" for the purposes of the federal statute immunizing gun manufacturers from liability for incidents arising out of the criminal use or other unlawful misuse of a gun (Martinez v. Taurus International Manufacturing, Inc., July 25, 2018, Scales, E.).
A 21-year-old substance-abusing man who lived in an apartment with his sister and her husband bought a .45 caliber handgun from a pawn shop. At the time of the purchase and despite his history of alcohol and marijuana use, he answered "no" to the question on the federal firearms-purchase form that asked whether he was a user of marijuana and other drugs. A couple of months after having purchased the gun, he took it into the apartment’s bathroom late one night and locked the door. The pistol went off and the man died as the result of a gunshot wound to his head.
The local authorities ruled the death a suicide, and the medical examiner’s toxicology report indicated the presence of apparently unprescribed controlled substances of the Benzodiazepine class as well as alcohol in his system at the time of his death. Nevertheless, the decedent’s representatives filed suit against the gun manufacturer, alleging that due to a defective design, the pistol had no effective safety device to prevent an unintended discharge. Specifically, they contended that the pistol had a "drop-fire" defect (i.e., it would discharge when it was dropped from the height of its ordinary use) and that the gun maker did not warn the decedent of the alleged defect.
The manufacturer moved for summary judgment pursuant to a provision of the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) that provides immunity from civil liability for gun manufacturers and sellers for incidents arising out of the criminal use or other unlawful misuse of a gun. Granting the company’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court held that the gun maker was immune from liability under the statute because the decedent had purchased the handgun under false pretenses and had continued to possess the pistol while taking illegal drugs. The decedent’s representatives appealed the trial court’s decision.
Statutory backdrop. The PLCAA defines a "qualified civil liability action" as "a civil action or proceeding … brought by any person against a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product … for damages … resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product by the person or a third party," and "unlawful misuse" as "conduct that violates a statute, ordinance, or regulation as it relates to the use of a qualified product." Congress exempted six classes of lawsuits from the definition of a "qualified civil liability action," including an exemption from the Act’s grant of immunity for civil actions "resulting directly from a defect in design or manufacture of the product, when used as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable manner, except that where the discharge of the product was caused by a volitional act that constituted a criminal offense, then such act shall be considered the sole proximate cause of any resulting death, personal injuries, or property damage."
Burden of proof. In order for the gun maker in the instant case to receive immunity under the PLCAA, it had to establish that the representatives’ lawsuit constituted a "qualified civil liability action," and, if so, that none of the statutorily prescribed exemptions were applicable. Therefore, in order for the trial court to make an immunity determination at the summary-judgment stage, the gun maker had to establish the absence of any genuine issue of material fact as to each of those elements.
The trial court’s determination that the lawsuit was a "qualified civil liability action" was premised on two distinct factual findings: (1) that the decedent’s purchase of the pistol—after he had denied drug use on his federal application form—was a "criminal or unlawful misuse" of the pistol in violation of the federal gun law provision requiring that handgun purchasers truthfully answer the questions on the firearms-purchase form; and (2) the decedent’s continued ownership and possession of the handgun after purchase constituted "criminal or unlawful misuse" of the pistol presumably in violation of those laws. The trial court concluded that the decedent’s "no" answer to the question regarding substance use constituted perjury; therefore, as a matter of law, the representatives’ lawsuit was a "qualified civil liability action" because it sought damages for the decedent’s "unlawful misuse" of the pistol.
Evidence on record. The appeals court found that although the record certainly contained circumstantial evidence that tended to support the gun manufacturer’s argument that the decedent had committed perjury when he answered "no" to the substance use question, the record also contained evidence from which a finder of fact could conclude that he was not an unlawful user of any controlled substance at the time he purchased his pistol. Thus, it could not be concluded that the manufacturer established the nonexistence of any material fact as to whether the decedent had been a regular and ongoing user of a controlled substance at the time he bought his gun.
The gun maker also argued, and the trial court concluded, that the decedent’s continued possession of the pistol constituted an ongoing violation of the federal handgun law because he allegedly had consumed illegal drugs during that period. Again, while the assembled facts at the summary-judgment stage plainly demonstrated that the decedent had used illegal drugs prior to his purchase of the gun, the summary-judgment record did not conclusively establish that he had been an unlawful drug user after the purchase of the pistol.
Although the toxicology report indicated that unprescribed controlled substances were in the decedent’s system at the time of his death, there was no evidence in the record regarding when those drugs had been ingested or how long they remain in an individual’s system after ingestion. Additionally, given the deposition testimony by the decedent’s sister that his use of drugs was "sporadic" and "wasn’t often," a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the decedent had been an "unlawful user" of controlled substances, i.e., whether he was a regular and ongoing user of controlled substances while he possessed the firearm.
Those disputed facts as to whether the instant action was a "qualified civil liability action" for the purposes of the PLCAA precluded summary judgment favoring the gun maker, the appeals court concluded, reversing and remanding the case to the trial court.
The case is No. 3D17-2279.
Attorneys: Patricia M. Kipnis (Bailey & Glasser LLP) for Nelson Martinez, Sr. and Maria Martinez. Gary J. Toman (Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial, LLC) and Dana G. Bradford, II (Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP) for Taurus International Manufacturing, Inc.
Companies: Taurus International Manufacturing, Inc.
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