Wisconsin appeals court allows lawsuit against Armslist to proceed

Zina Daniel Haughton was killed by her estranged husband with a gun he bought through ArmsList. (Photo: Journal Sentinel)

A Wisconsin appeals panel reversed a lower court decision this week dismissing a 2015 lawsuit against Armslist, instead allowing for the case to proceed.

In the 24-page ruling issued Thursday, Judge Brian Blanchard said the federal Communications Decency Act doesn’t shield Armslist from liability “arising from its own conduct in facilitating user activity,” agreeing the website’s search functions may have encouraged an illegal gun transfer between a private seller and a prohibited buyer who later used the firearm to murder three people, including his estranged wife.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn Yamahiro dismissed the case in 2016, holding Armslist, as a publisher of third party-generated content, can’t be held liable under federal law for the actions its users take.

“In sum, the Act … does not immunize Armslist from claims in the complaint because the claims and the supporting allegations do not seek to hold Armslist liable for publishing another’s information content,” Blanchard wrote. “Instead, the claims seek to hold Armslist liable for its own alleged actions in designing and operating its website in ways that caused injuries to Daniel.”

Yasmeen Daniel filed suit in 2015 against the Oklahoma-based website, its owners, the insurance companies it contracts with on liability claims and a private Wisconsin resident who used Armslist to sell a handgun to Daniel’s stepfather, Radcliffe Haughton, in October 2012.

Just days after buying the gun from Devin Linn in a McDonalds parking lot for $500, Haughton shot and killed his estranged wife, Zina Daniel Haughton, and two other women at the salon where she worked in suburban Milwaukee. Haughton then committed suicide before police could take him into custody.

Daniel is the victim’s daughter from a previous relationship and a witness to the crime.

Federal background check laws barred Haughton from owning a firearm because of his wife’s four-year domestic violence restraining order against him. Wisconsin state law, however, does not require background checks for private sales, like the one facilitated between Haughton and Linn, in the days before the murders.

“When online marketplaces facilitate gun sales without background checks to people with dangerous histories, the consequences can be deadly,” said Eric Tirschwell, litigation director for Everytown for Gun Safety. “Today’s ruling sends a clear and important message that these websites should have to answer for their practices.”

Jonathan Lowy, co-counsel in the case and vice president of litigation at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said Thursday the decision “is an important victory” that will keep people across the country safer.

“Any business involved in guns should do what it reasonably can to keep guns out of the wrong hands, and should not put profits over the people,” he said. “This decision will help encourage those in the gun business to do what they can to reduce America’s unacceptable toll of gun violence.”

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