Law professors say ‘negligent entrustment’ applies in Sandy Hook case

Law professors from across the country filed an amicus brief this week with the Connecticut Supreme Court that shows how negligent entrustment can apply even in cases involving guns.

The brief bolsters the argument that Remington Outdoor Company and other defendants acted negligently by marketing and selling AR-style weapons to civilians and should be held accountable when they’re applied as such, like during the Sandy Hook school shooting.

“While the AR-15’s path to (Adam) Lanza’s hands was surely less direct than in a typical negligent entrustment case, a jury might reasonably conclude that, given the glaring and highly-publicized danger posed by AR-15s, defendants failed to take adequate care to prevent these weapons from falling into the wrong hands,” the brief says.

The professors explore applications of negligent entrustment tort, advising it boils down to one question: “In entrusting his property to another, did the defendant take adequate precautions given the magnitude of the foreseeable risk?” Rather than answering the question, the state court mistakenly used it as “something like prerequisites” when it dismissed the case last year.

Case law shows courts have taken a flexible approach when applying negligent entrustment claims, the brief says. They will review aspects of the case like social settings, multiple entrustments, the ultimate entrustee, and if defendant lacked knowledge about the entrustee’s incompetence.

“Applying these familiar principles, the question is whether a jury could find that defendants should have foreseen that aggressively marketing this weapon to the narrow class of civilians who are attracted to military-grade weapons (and whom defendants knew or should have known lacked the proper training or supervision to handle such weapons) might result in death or injury to innocent persons-and whether defendants took adequate precautions in the face of this apparent risk,” the brief says. ”In so doing, the jury must first assess the gravity of the danger posed by AR-15s.”

Families of victims in the shooting filed an appeal in March that alleges Lanza’s mother, whom he spent almost all of his time with, bought him the Bushmaster AR-15 likely as a birthday present. They argue Lanza opted for “unfettered access” to the rifle over joining the Army because of his documented history of social and developmental disorders would have kept him out of the military.

Their case also describes how the AR-15 evolved from its military predecessor and how Remington targeted a “younger demographic of users” with ads linking the AR-15 to “macho vigilantism and military-style insurrection,” traits that appealed to the 20-year-old “video-game playing, military-obsessed” Lanza.

According to a detailed report issued by Connecticut authorities, Lanza used the AR rifle made by Bushmaster Firearms, a Remington subsidiary, to murder 20 first-graders and six educators at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012.

Seven other groups requested to submit briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs following the appeal. While the court has approved all of their requests, they all have until late April or May 1 to file. One other group has filed an amicus brief so far. Advocacy group Trinity Church Wall Street filed in mid-April, arguing the state recognizes the dangers of AR-style weapons by passing strict gun laws, so the court should consider them “special risk” items.

Given the late deadlines, Remington and other defendants — Bushmaster and the distributor and retailer shop that sold the gun — asked to extend their deadline to respond to mid-May. According to the case docket, they have until May 10 to respond to the appeal, but the court is not expected to take up the case until later in the year.

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