Products Liability Law Daily Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act unconstitutional, state appellate court rules
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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act unconstitutional, state appellate court rules

By David Yucht, J.D.

Federal tort-reform statutes, like the one at issue here, are harmful to America’s system of federalism because they undermine the "police power reserved to the States under the Tenth Amendment."

Despite the objections of the U.S. government, a state appellate panel in Pennsylvania reversed a trial court ruling that had thrown out a wrongful death lawsuit filed against a gun manufacturer and seller by the parents of a boy who died as the result of an accidental gunshot. The appellate court ruled that the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which the trial court had determined barred this state lawsuit, was unconstitutional under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Gustafson v. Springfield Inc., September 28, 2020, Kunselman, D.).

A 13-year-old boy and his 14-year-old friend were visiting at a home in Pennsylvania. The older boy got hold of the homeowner’s Springfield Armory semiautomatic handgun and removed the handgun’s clip. At that point, he allegedly believed the gun was unloaded, because there were "no adequate indicators or warnings to inform him that a live round remained in the chamber." The older boy pulled the trigger, firing the gun, unintentionally killing the younger boy. He was prosecuted as a juvenile in state court.

The deceased child’s parents sued the gun manufacturer as well as the store in which the gun was purchased. They alleged, under Pennsylvania law, that the manufacturer and store were negligent and strictly liable for manufacturing and/or selling the defective handgun that caused their son’s death. They alleged a design defect because the gun lacked a safety feature to disable it from firing without the clip attached. They also asserted that the manufacturer and store failed to adequately warn that a bullet would remain in the chamber after the clip was removed. The store and manufacturer moved for dismissal, asserting that they were immune from suit under the PLCAA. The parents asserted that the PLCAA was unconstitutional. Upon learning of the constitutional attack, the federal government intervened to defend the PLCAA. The trial court concluded that the PLCAA barred all the parents’ causes of action and upheld the constitutionality of the statute. The parents appealed.

Federal preemption—states’ rights. The appellate court reversed the trial court, ruling that the PLCAA was unconstitutional under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and not a proper assertion of federal authority under the Commerce Clause. Under the PLCAA, civil actions involving the unlawful use of firearms "may not be brought in any federal or state court" against members of the gun industry. Here, the plain language of the PLCAA unambiguously barred this lawsuit because the child died when his friend committed the Pennsylvania crime of involuntary manslaughter by unintentionally firing a bullet at him. The PLCAA only permits lawsuits to proceed against the gun industry when members of the gun industry violate state or federal statutes.

The appellate court noted that the idea of "federalism" splits authority between the federal government and the states, based on an understanding that individual freedom is better protected by two governments rather than one. Under the Tenth Amendment, local matters, not delegated to the federal government or otherwise prohibited to the states, fall under the authority of the individual states. The appellate court found that the PLCAA raised "grave" constitutional questions because it disallowed all state causes of action at common law against gun manufacturers. Federal tort-reform statutes, like the PLCAA, are harmful to America’s system of federalism because they undermine the "police power reserved to the States under the Tenth Amendment," the court reasoned. If a state exercised its police power under the Tenth Amendment to criminalize a shooting, the PLCAA "strips that State of its tort-based police power to hold the gun industry financially responsible." Accordingly, the PLCAA unconstitutionally encroached on state authority, the court held.

Moreover, Congress did not properly enact the PLCAA under its Commerce Clause power because the PLCAA improperly regulated states’ abilities to apply their respective common laws but did not regulate the commercial activity of private individuals. According to the appellate court, as applied here, the PLCAA regulated "the inactivity of individuals who may never have engaged in a commercial transaction with the gun industry." The PLCAA "reached out and pull[ed]" the victim and his parents "into the financial service of the gun market. It force[d] them to serve as financial sureties for the negligent acts and omissions of the industry by barring the[m] from filing an otherwise valid lawsuit under the common law of Pennsylvania." Here, in the context of this lawsuit, the victim and his parents "did not engage in commerce of any kind." Consequently, there was no commercial activity to support the federal government’s assertion of authority under the Commerce Clause.

The case is No. 207 WDA 2019.

Attorneys: Kelly Kathleen Iverson (Carlson Lynch Sweet Kilpela & Carpenter LLP) for Mark Gustafson and Estate of James Robert Gustafson. John Karl Greiner (Tremba, Kinney, Greiner & Kerr, LLC) and Christopher Renzulli (Renzulli Law Firm, LLP) for Springfield, Inc. d/b/a Springfield Armory and Saloom Department Store.

Companies: Springfield, Inc. d/b/a Springfield Armory and Saloom Department Store

MainStory: TopStory DefensesLiabilityNews PreemptionNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews WeaponsFirearmsNews PennsylvaniaNews

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