The families of nine of the 26 people killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit.  The killings were carried out by Adam Lanza, a mentally disturbed 20-year-old living with his mother, Nancy.  On the morning of the incident, Lanza shot his mother while she slept, took various unsecured firearms that she had legally purchased, and then headed to the elementary school, where he went on a killing spree.  After terrorizing the students and teachers, Lanza committed suicide to avoid facing the earthly consequences of his acts.

The Connecticut wrongful-death statute, in derogation of the common law, allows the executor of a deceased’s estate to recover damages “from the party legally at fault” for the injuries and death.  In prosecuting such an action, the plaintiff generally must show a causal relation between the plaintiff’s injuries and the defendant’s conduct.  In establishing the proximate cause of the injuries, Connecticut case law requires that the defendant’s conduct be a “substantial factor” in producing the injury—i.e., “the harm which occurred must be of the same general nature as the foreseeable risk created by the defendant’s negligence.”

The two clear targets of the wrongful-death action are Lanza and his mother.  Lanza, quite obviously, is the individual who carried out the attack on the school.  He pulled the trigger, and his acts caused the deaths of 26 people.  Lanza’s mother lived with him, knew that he was mentally disturbed, and failed to secure her firearms and ammunition.  Hence, one could argue that her negligence in not securing the weapons was a “substantial factor” in causing the deaths.

The lawsuit filed, however, includes no causes of action against the estates of Adam and Nancy Lanza.  Instead, the suit primarily targets the manufacturer, distributor, and seller of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, model XM15-E2S, that Lanza used in the crime.  The theory of the plaintiffs’ complaint is that the weapon’s maker, distributor, and seller knew that “as a result of selling AR-15s to the civilian market, individuals unfit to operate these weapons gain access to them,” and consequently defendants “knew or should have known that the sale of [this rifle] in the civilian market posed an unreasonable and egregious risk of physical injury to others.”

The plaintiffs also allege that there is no legitimate reason to possess a semiautomatic rifle for self-defense because the length of these weapons “makes them inferior to smaller guns in the confines of a home.”  The complaint further avers that, in self-defense situations when weapons are lawfully used, on average only 2.2 shots are fired.  This data, the argument continues, shows that high-capacity magazines are unnecessary.

While one should naturally have compassion for the families who suffered loss because of Lanza’s actions, the suit exemplifies the abuse often found in the American legal system.  Because Nancy and Adam Lanza had no substantial assets (Nancy Lanza’s estate is worth about $64,000), the plaintiffs’ lawyers had to find another target.  Although the report from the state prosecutor’s office is unequivocal that “[a]ll of the firearms . . . involved in this case were legally purchased by the shooter’s mother,” and “the evidence does not show any ammunition purchases by the shooter,” the existence of deep pockets elsewhere drives the litigation.  The plaintiffs chose to ignore that none of the defendants in this case broke any federal, state, or local law in the manufacture, distribution, and sale of the weapon.

The contention that the civilian population should not be entrusted with Bushmaster AR-15 rifles is a policy argument that should be raised in the Congress or state legislatures.  There are obvious Second Amendment issues with this policy argument, but the courts are not the proper forum for this initial policy determination.  The duty of the courts in this case should be a prompt ruling that the defendants in the suit, as a matter of law, were not a substantial factor in producing the harm to the victims.

The one bit of sanity regarding this lawsuit is that 17 families who suffered losses chose not to participate in this shakedown of companies and individuals who bear no responsibility for the events of December 2012.  The possibility of a windfall from persons and entities operating within the realm of the law did not entice them.

The Sandy Hook shooting is indeed a tragedy.  The tragedy is only worsened by the avarice and overbroad claims asserted against Bushmaster Firearms and other innocent parties.